Día de los Muertos

Not His Coy Mistress

Our high school relationship barely reached the level of making puppy-dog eyes at each other. I was a senior, Miriam was a junior with lustrous black hair falling like a mountain trail down to her waist. Her striking mestizo appearance—mixed European and Indian heritage—belonged on a Diego Rivera mural, portraying the enduring female spirit of Mexico. As high school outsiders, we shared a love of literature, the older the better. We’d sneak into a counselor's office at lunch to talk about Elizabethan poetry and Shakespeare and hold hands. Her dark liquid eyes and musical voice entranced me; I don't know if my animal-print shirts and Fu Manchu moustache did the same for Miri, but our hands lingered together, warm and moist as we sat side by side on folding metal chairs, pretending to not notice our shoulders and legs touched.

Our affection for Andrew Marvell’s poem "To His Coy Mistress" united us, but other factors kept us apart. Gringos and Mexicans—the common terms back in the day—didn't date so easily in South Texas back then, when the railroad tracks split our town into the gringo north side and the Mexican south side, even if the "gringo side" was about 70 percent Hispanic anyway. Still, I yearned for more time and connection with her. Unwritten or bluntly stated in the old "No Jews, no dogs, no Mexicans" signs in store windows, the rules were the rules, even as they slowly wore away. I was Jewish, she was Catholic, and our affection faced more obstacles than Romeo and Juliet did. But the hopes of youth pushed me along, so I finally bucked up my courage and asked Miri the big question.

"Would you like to be my date at the Prom?" I asked her one day in late January, when our town shivered through a cold spell as border temperatures sank into the 50s. Thoughts of us slow-dancing to Chicago's "Color My World" while she wore a Valentine's corsage warmed me up.

"How sweet! I'd love to . . . let me ask my parents, OK?" she said brightly. That sounded encouraging, so that notion of a long night at the Civic Center danced before me while I filled out college applications.

Later that week we sat in the counselor's office. She had said nothing.

"So," I said, "any word yet on the Prom?"

She looked uneasy and pulled her hand away.

"I'll be staying home," she said. "My father, well, he won't let me go out. He's a very protective old-school Mexican papa."

"He could be our chaperone," I said, only half-jokingly. I'd make any compromise I could. "Your sister could. It would be very proper."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. He doesn't want me to go out with a gringo."

“But he doesn’t even know me! I’ll come over and ask his permission. Your mom’s permission. What could I do?”

“Please, Jason, don’t make this harder on me. I’d go with you, I would, but I can’t go back on what my father wants. My sisters got the same treatment. At least I asked.”

The eagerness seeped out of me, like air escaping from a balloon—a zeppelin-sized balloon, crashing in flames in a South Texas cactus patch.

“At least you asked, right. ‘If we had but world enough and time . . . ‘” I muttered, reciting Marvell:

“ . . . ‘This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.’”

“We’ll never sit down and think” I snapped.

“Can I be coy, at least?” Miri’s striking hazel eyes cast a pleading look, but I thought she was mocking me.

“I get enough coyness here, I want something else,” I said. “Be whatever you want.”

I was hurt and responded like a hormone-addled 18-year old jerk, and I never felt the same for her. I tried and had been rejected, by her father if not by her. Our literary salons dribbled down to nothing as I finished college applications and senior projects. Miri spent a lot of time on choir competitions and her starring role in the spring musical. I never asked her out again.

End of the story. I graduated and went east to college in Boston. In a few years my family had moved away from the Rio Grande Valley. Except for high school reunions, I never returned to the Valley. My attention moved to other women, other heartbreakers, and a hopeless high school infatuation faded like that fantasy corsage for the Prom. Miri existed only in memories of stolen moments and photos in the high school yearbook. Nobody mentioned her at my class reunions in McAllen and South Padre Island, and I thought it best not to ask. Well, I asked a few discreet friends but nobody knew anything. She had no online presence at all and I decided she preferred to stay unknowable.

Thirty years passed. Big city life agreed with me so I stayed in Boston, freezing my ass off every winter but still liking the change in seasons, compared to South Texas, where weather ranged from hot to very hot, with hurricanes mixed in for variety. My career in corporate communications kept me busy and well paid, other than the occasional soul-destroying mass layoffs (hello, COBRA!). I finally landed at an engineering firm with national operations and frequent acquisitions, so travels for big projects and meetings with the new troops padded my frequent flier accounts.

One afternoon, as I watched pedestrians trudge along Boylston Street in a late October sleetstorm, my boss asked me about a new acquisition with offices in South Texas. The purchase moved us into a new region with opportunities to market ourselves and bid for projects on both sides of the Rio Grande. I said I'd read our press release about the firm and saw potential.

“It's a great firm for engineering,” he agreed, “but the marketing materials are rough around the edges, PowerPoint skills and writing needs a lot of improvement. You game for a trip to your old stomping grounds? You're from McAllen, aren't you, on the border?”

"In that area, yeah, no place you've heard of."

I hadn’t been to the Valley since the last reunion, my 30th. The sleet pounded down on Boston and I dreaded the chill commute home on the T to my apartment in Somerville. Palm trees sounded appealing the moment. I didn’t have to think too long.

“Have laptop will travel, when do I go?”

“Next week. Be sure to take a Halloween costume.”

Out in the Imaginary Orange Groves

My post on Facebook that I was flying from Boston to McAllen drew a few likes, mostly Bostonians volunteering to tag along and leave the slush behind. Once in McAllen, I steered my rental car to the hotel on Archer Park, where I used to hear country-western and Tex-Mex bands playing on summer nights in the gazebo. My meetings with the new sales and marketing staffers from the new firm’s offices would be in the hotel, with after-hours events in McAllen—but company management strictly forbade us from going across the Rio Grande to Reynosa. Drug cartels ruled the place and the company’s insurance policies warned against risky travel unless we coordinated with corporate security. The agent at the rental car company declared several times that the car could not be driven into Mexico without special insurance. I told him plainly I had no intention of even getting closer to Mexico than the airport, much less driving over any of the Hidalgo County bridges.

“Smart move. Enjoy your visit, sir,” he said.

“That’s the plan, amigo,” I replied.

I checked office email on my laptop before I joined the new colleagues for an opening reception. Facebook, also  open, pinged with an IM from a friend I vaguely remembered from high school, a woman named Ximena.

“Hi Jason!”

“Hi Ximena. What’s up?”

“Are you in McAllen now?”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“Oh I saw your travel plans. Long trip!”

“Yes, I’m glad to be off the plane.”

“You must be wondering why I wrote to you.”

“Sort of.”

“I’m not Ximena.”

“The plot thickens. Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Ximena’s. I borrowed her profile to say hello. I’m not actually on Facebook.”

“I need to get ready for a meeting so I don’t have much time to continue.”

“Not even with your old friend Miriam?”

My pulse did cartwheels at this point.

“Miriam, as in literature and choir Miri?”

“Yes, big surprise, no?”

I didn’t know what to write. “Yes, a surprise. It’s great to hear from you. It's only been a quarter century.”

“I saw you were coming to the Valley and well I wanted to see how you are doing.”

“I’d love to catch up, Miri. I’ve got a reception at the hotel in a little bit, job stuff, but that should end around 6. Want to talk after that? I mean, this is a huge surprise.”

“I can come to the hotel. You’ll be fresh and dressed up for your meeting, that’s a nice way to see each other.”

“OK, are you in the area?”

“For you I am.”

“Give me a number and I’ll text you when the meeting is over.”

We swapped cell phone numbers and ended the chat. I had enough time to take a shower to wash the travel gunk off me. Boston to McAllen via Houston is a long flight, so I wanted to freshen up anyway. Once clean, I paid extra attention to my shirt and khakis, since now I was dressing not only for engineers, but also for Miri. How could that be happening?

The chat receded to the level of a drunken dream while I shook hands, introduced myself and listened to marketers tell me how excited they were to join a big engineering firm with enough resources to send a marketing communications trainer all the way to McAllen. I connected with them by using my remaining Texas accent to tell them that I grew up in the Valley and was thrilled to be back—and I was, but thoughts of mysterious Miriam gave me more excitement than the job chores. The reception's sushi spread was excellent, however. 

I waved off invitations to continue the fiesta at McAllen nightspots, saying I was waiting for a friend in the hotel lobby. I settled into an overstuffed leather chair and texted Miri that I was free. “I cleared my social calendar for the night,” I wrote.

The cool, shady lobby struck me as South Texas Gothic. I liked the leather chairs and couches in dark cowhide, longhorns and deer heads mounted on the walls, a glass display of a saddle once used by Pancho Villa, posters showing bullfights, singing Mexican vaqueros and busty women revolutionaries with bandoleros crossing breasts barely restrained under peasant blouses, travel posters from the 1930s showing sleepy pueblos and tour buses on mountain roads. A tiled fountain in the center gurgled and lulled travelers; I felt a little sleepy myself. A whiteboard on an easel announced a festive Halloween party for guests, along with “Día de los Muertos face painting for the family!” I didn’t know anything about that, other than a vague awareness of the Day of the Dead holiday.

I heard shoes clicking on the polished stone floor, heading toward me.

“Hola, Jason!” That woke me up.

Outlined against the last of the day's sunshine I saw Miri, 30 years older but still with the long black hair threaded with silver and braided down her back, new-looking jeans hugging her hips and a sleeveless burgundy blouse with a scoop neck that showed her olive skin. Turquoise earrings, a Mexican art deco look, pirouetted to frame her face with the same high cheekbones I remembered. Leather huarache sandals gave me an eyeful of her painted toenails and toe cleavage.

I jumped up. “Miri! You got here fast.”

“I didn’t want to waste your time forcing you to sit around.”

“I was just enjoying the atmosphere. Very local.”

“That’s what the people want.”

I leaned over to kiss her cheek but she grabbed me full-on and our lips locked together, about 180 degrees away from my chaste expectations. My hands went behind her back and slid on her thick hair. Miri maneuvered me so our bodies molded together like we'd been rubbing against each other for years. Nothing felt awkward. I could smell a faint perfume, something that jolted me with the sense of confident femininity. That hadn’t happened in years.

I stepped back, breathless. “So here we are, back in McAllen.”

“Two world travelers, proving you can go home again.”

“For a little while. I’m only here for a few days, then back to Boston.”

We sat on a couch, a few inches between us to keep some modesty in the lobby.

“I’m a little speechless,” I admitted. “I had no idea we’d ever be in touch again, or how we would be in touch.”

“The Internet is a wonderful tool. And Facebook!” said.

She sounded her age, late 40s, smoky around the edges, a little purr to her tone, but still, as I thought of Miri back then, my Aztec Princess.

“You came at a good time—football season is going full blast, Halloween is tomorrow and then my favorite, Día de los Muertos. A real Mexican celebration.”

“I saw the sign in the lobby for face painting. What’s it about? I don’t remember that being a holiday of any kind growing up here.”

“It wasn’t. Back then it was celebrated in Mexico more than in the U.S. Hey, are you hungry, want to get out of this lobby for some food? I hope you didn’t stuff yourself at the reception.”

"I'd love to, but I've been on the go for 14 hours and the meetings start tomorrow at 8. And I did stuff myself with sushi at the reception. Imagine that, sushi in McAllen. We can go for a walk and sit in the park, if that's OK. I'm a little ragged around the edges now and I want you to see me a little fresher."

She shrugged but I saw a flash of a pout, as if I were telling her to take a hike, rather than let's go for a walk.

"OK, let's do that. After your flight you probably want to stretch your legs."

"Vamanos, muchacha. Let's go, girl," I told her.

Archer Park looked much as I remembered it from 30 years earlier, with benches, mesquite trees, the gazebo where politicians spoke at the Fourth of July celebrations and radio stations did remote broadcasts. On this warm October evening I could see Halloween decorations at the stores around the park, orange and black streamers, strings of spider webs, witches' hats and ghostly sheets, all ready for kids to tramp around the next day for candy.

"I'm still shocked at this, Miri. I don’t get it," I told her during our swing around the perimeter, beneath the towering trees that inspired McAllen's motto, "City of Palms."

"I remembered you well, Jason. I won't lie about that. Did you remember me? You certainly asked about me!"

"Oh, you know I asked around. Nobody knew nada about you.”

“I told them to keep quiet, I like a low profile. Some of them you asked let me know.”

I felt deflated. I got so close to her with my questions but she might as well have been on Mars.

“Sure I remembered you, but I couldn't do anything about it. I didn't know if you had changed your name, or moved away, or anything."

We sat on a park bench near the gazebo, leaning in toward each other.

We talked about the usual topics. Freezing in Boston, broiling in South Texas; my son in college, her daughter Connie, a dancer living in Berlin. No so much on our divorces.

“Are you still in town or did you move north for the big-city experience?” I asked.

“In the area some of the time,” she said, “I have a condo north of McAllen, nothing fancy, a place to hang my cowboy hat, and a ranchito in the Hill Country.”

"So what do you do? I imagined you either teaching English literature or putting that voice to work. You had talent. And presence. You could be a choir director or in a Tex-Mex band. Or singing with Willie Nelson. Or, hell, on Broadway. You could sing anything."

“Presence?” she laughed. “I just had fun.”

“You could have been Selena before there was Selena.”

“I wish. My boobs were too small for that kind of presence.”

“I wouldn’t know about that. You looked good to me. I'd put your boobs up to Selena's any day.”

“What a bad boy!”

“Maybe a slow dance at the Prom could have cleared that up. Too bad about that.” I gathered my thoughts. “Why did you contact me, really?” I asked, wanting to move in a new direction. My question about what she did for a living, I noted, went unanswered. “We haven’t talked in 30 years. You vanished. We barely know each other, to be honest. I’m curious.”

“I felt something back then, I’ll be honest, too. School crush. Who else in at school wanted to talk about a bunch of old poems and plays with me? You were sweet. You paid attention. It was so cute when you held my hand in the counselor’s office.”

“Sweet and cute, I hope I’ve moved beyond that identity,” I said, with a testy edge in my voice. I’d heard enough of that over the years.

I thought about her father’s anger at me, my half-serious offer to ask him in person so he could see I was a good guy, a gringo who would treat his daughter like a princess, an Aztec Princess. I felt stirred up like I did 30 years earlier.

“I see you as a lot more, Jason. You're very naughty online. You go right up to the line of being tacky, but you pull back. And you're so suggestive, it's like being back in the counselor's office and reading poems with 'breasts' in them," she said. We sat quietly and moved closer together, feeling a little teen-like. No adults could come and bust up the moment; we were the adults now.

“Poems like this?” I said, then recited from memory:

“An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

Two hundred to adore each breast,

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.”

She sighed and looked ahead. “I love how you have Marvell memorized. I could barely walk straight when we read that together; imagine, reading about breasts back then! That would have gotten your mouth washed out with soap in a lot of homes. I wanted to write a lady’s response to Marvell and talk about your man parts, but I didn’t know where to begin,” she paused. “I know this is weird, after 30 years but, you know, it’s time to try new things in life. I never knew you were in the Valley before. When was the last time you were here?”

“Four years ago, for the reunion at Padre Island. That’s about it."

“I wasn’t around then, so we couldn’t have met anyway. But I read your posts and photos on Facebook, and they made me laugh. I could recognize your voice there. The same Jason! Nice travel photos, too.”

“So Ximena is your partner in stalking?”

She frowned. “That’s not very nice to say. I was your respectful admirer. And if you think I'm a stalker, I can leave and I won’t bother you no more. Your choice.”

I could tell I stung her. Or, she could act as well as she could sing. “No, that’s a bad word choice on my part. I’m sorry. I love the idea that you followed me, I just wish it had been a two-way street. You know a lot more about me than I know about you.”

“Ask me what you want to know. Go ahead, shoot.”

“I don’t know if ‘shoot’ is the right word to use near Mexico. But, OK—you’re not online at all. You’re a ghost. What were you doing since we graduated. I asked around but nobody really knew. Just rumors.”

“OK, I can tell you really want to know. I work in the travel industry. My own business. The Valley turned out to be a great base for my kind of work. I arrange the details with tour groups, like churches, interested in going to Mexico. It makes good use of some skills I developed in the military. It took a long time to get to this point. I had knocked around after high school, and got married, that didn’t last long.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“He seemed like a nice guy, Valley type, moving up in a family business. Then he started getting jealous, big macho guy, and hit me.”

“Nobody deserves that.”

“My family told me to stay with him, be a good Catholic housewife, they are old old school types. But I finally left and filed for divorce. I told him if he ever hit me again I’d kill him.”

“Would you have really done that?”

“You’ve been to Israel, you know what they say about sabras, the native Israelis?”

“No, what do they say?”

“Tough on the outside, sweet on the inside. My husband, he thought I was sweet inside and out. But I was a lot tougher than he expected. Even when I was 20 years old.”

“So I imagine. I always knew about the smart and sweet sides, and that perfume makes you plenty spicy.”

She blushed. “You noticed! That’s my favorite. It works well in warm climates.”

“What happened after you left him? Twenty years old, Valley girl, then what?”

“I wanted to see the world. Crazy, right? So I joined the Army. I marched right down to the recruiting station in McAllen and signed up. They were happy to have me.”

Looking at her, I struggled to envision Miri with clipped hair, no soft red lipstick, wearing fatigues and humping a backpack on long hikes, if women could even do that back then. 

“They must have given you a skills assessment. What, ah, did you wind up doing?”

“An Army choir.” She kept a straight face.

“OK, I can see that.”

“No, silly, I didn’t want to sing, I wanted to, well, put my skills to work. I know Spanish, of course, and I like puzzles and can see patterns. My father taught all the kids how to shoot, in case anybody threatened us, so I'm a good shot. Mexicans know what a threat is. You know how it is down here.”

“A South Texas childhood.”

“So I wound up in military intelligence. Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing at all.”

“I had a knack for it. I liked talking to people, blending in, listening, analyzing. My acting classes in school came in handy. Back then the Army—heck, all kinds of corners of the government—liked my skills and, well, I saw the world. I was all over Latin America. I could blend in to most places. Wherever I went, I could pick up the language. Weird skill. People always think I'm a native. I can get by in some of the Mayan languages in Guatemala, where people really pegged me as a local."

I thought about all this. Now I could see her military background. For its curves and allure, her body projected a subdued hardness, her personality suggested a woman with a purpose.

“Would it be fair to say your ex dodged a bullet?”

“Literally, yes, that’s fair to say.”

“And others didn’t dodge the bullet.”

“Sorry, I can’t hear that question. Actually, I can’t answer it. You don't want to know.”

“Lifer in the Army?”

“Long enough to get a pension and have all kinds of adventures in service to my country. I lived around the world. I got a college degree, too, and developed enough balls to open my own business.”

"Things happen when they happen. And here we are." I kept the conversation light, not wanting to wander into why she wasn't around, or the reasons for her low profile. Enough shocks had come my way in one evening.

"You must be so tired. I don't want to keep you out late. It's a school night," she said.

I had a day and a half of meetings, with a Halloween dinner for all the attendees the next night and then a half day after that.

"I actually planned to stay over the weekend to play tourist, so I'm not rushing back to Boston," I told her as we sat on the park bench, swirls of Halloween colors around the hotel and buildings around the park. "If you want, we can get together after I'm done here. Play tourist with me. We can cruise McAllen like we all did in high school."

"I like that idea and I know all about tourism!" she said brightly. "I'd love to go cruising with you. We could do something for Día de los Muertos. That's become a big event in the Valley." She looked at me with a sly but shy smile. "We could go to the orange groves. At night. You like that idea?"

Her boldness penetrated my foggy brain, but I wasn't quite sure of what she was getting at. Or, maybe I was. "We get oranges at breakfast here. I get all the fruit I need, thanks."

"I'm the juicy fruit. You could squeeze my oranges."

"Miri, what's gotten into you! This isn't the musical comedy star I remember. Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?"

"Yes, for sure. I want to get you hot and bothered like you used to be. You didn't know me at all back then. Practically nobody did. I used to wonder what would have happened when we were a little older, when you'd come to the Valley for one of your reunions. I know we didn't contact each other, but Facebook 30 years ago would have been real nice." When she talked about our past, I noticed that Miri slipped into the distinctive border twang of South Texas, an accent I can recognize in an instant. After Boston's accents, it sounded real nice to me, like home.

I felt like I was skittering on thin ice with mysterious Miri, but I decided to go with the ice flow and see where we went.

"I would have been the up-and-coming Boston marketing manager picking you up for a date. You’d be the Army spook. I'd take you out to eat and we would talk about ourselves, like we did now."

"But we were younger then, starting out in life, eager to explore."

"OK, we'd eat, and then what? Where do you want to go?" I looked around, hoping nobody heard us talking on the park bench. I shifted around on the bench, feeling a hard-on starting to build.

"We'd be a little shy around each other, since we hadn't seen each other in, what, 10 years? That's a long time," she laughed.

"So we get in my car and we go to the orange groves out in the country. It's dark, there, and who knows what we'll find. Maybe other couples necking and making babies?"

"Oh, that never happened in our little town! The stork brought all those babies when girls left school. Nobody had sex in the orange groves. But yes, we're out in the orange groves, plucking oranges off the trees. They smell so good, don't they? They are so fragrant. They're so firm and round, like my tetas. You'd like to touch them, right here on the bench in Archer Park, wouldn't you, Jason?" she looked ahead, just talked softly.

"It's getting dark, nobody can see us, you can put your arm around me. Go ahead. Romancing couples always sit close together in McAllen."

"Even gringos and Mexicans? Nobody's going to come call me a pinche pendejo cabron?" I asked.

"If they do, they'll have to answer to me. Of course, you don't have to put your arm around me and feel me up. But you can."

"It's a little soon," I admitted. "but, well, we're just talking about what could have happened a long time ago, not what's happening now."

"That's the spirit. We're just playing with the past. Here, let me scoot closer to you so my teta brushes against you. Maybe you can feel it, feel the nipple getting harder. Are you getting harder, Jason, should I lean over and brush against your pants?"

"If you keep talking like that, I will be," I liked the sound of that. "So, back to 20 years ago, Miri and Jason in the orange grove, nobody around. I park my car. There's a blanket in the back seat. Should we go walk around to find a place to sit down and, uh, talk? Or would you want to interrogate me?"

"I would not be working then! Maybe we wouldn’t go outside, it's so buggy, all that dirt. Critters running around, maybe rattlesnakes. I know! Your car has one of those old-fashioned bench seats with no center console. Does that give you ideas?"

"We could start by unbuckling our seat belts, because we always obey the law. You'd have me scoot over so I'd be on your side of the car. We'd hold hands, but since we're brave adults now I'd put my arm around you and pull you to me, but slowly."

"Yes, a girl needs her time on these things, a little romancing, even if she's secretly getting wet at the thought. But I would never have said that then. But I'll say that now, because I am getting a little wet down there talking about all this with you. If we had more privacy I'd put your hand down my jeans so you could tell, and then lick your fingers. But that's not proper for a young lady like me, even if I want to very badly. And certainly not in the orange groves where we went parking in our 20s."

"So we're sitting in the car hugging and kissing a little. Getting into the groove of it. The wind rustles the orange trees and we see the moon through the branches. It casts enough light that I can see your chest rising and falling, your bra through the sheer material of the blouse you wore for our big date."

She pushes against me on the bench, the modern moon also casting enough light through the palms of Archer Park so I can see her moving with a slight rhythm against me. The dual images of reality and imagined encounter of long ago make me dizzy.

"Our tongues meet," she says. "You're so moist and probing. So manly. I would never tell you then, but I would wonder what your tongue would do on my clit. You would be so soft and gentle. Did you know how to do that back then, had a woman showed you what she likes when a man spreads her lips and pleasures her? Or were you still figuring things out? Would I need to teach you?"

"I knew which hole was which, and yes, I knew a little about what women like. Of course, every woman's different. You know how it goes, different strokes for different folks," I told her, sliding my arm around her shoulder as we sat on the bench in moonlit Archer Park. My fingers thrummed on her collarbone and I moved one along her smooth tan throat.

"You liked that, what I did with my finger?" I asked.

"Yes, but don't do anything else for a minute because a McAllen PD cruiser is about to drive right by here," she nodded toward the corner where, sure enough, a cruiser turned and passed us, but nothing happened.

"Woman's intuition?" I marveled.

"I’m good at pattern recognition, and I've lived here long enough to know the patrol schedules The cartel lookouts, the halcones, do the same thing, by the way, in Mexico. Anyway, that's my training, nothing magical. We stayed alive in Salvador by seeing them before they saw us," she said. "Now, where were we?"

"We're in the car and you stroke my chest and unbutton my shirt, so you can run your fingers through my chest hair. You scratch your fingernail over my boy nipple and I jump. I'm beginning to get your drift of what you like. Were you always that way?"

"The older I got, the more curious I became. I bet you were the same way. But could you talk to anybody about your urges, what you wanted to do?"

"I had Penthouse magazine, that's about it," I admitted.

"It was worse for girls. The less we knew, the harder it got when we got into situations we didn't know how to handle. You were either a slut or a saint. My girlfriends didn't know any more than I did. I never had an orgasm until after I was divorced," she said, stopping the reverie in the moonlight. She looked sad.

"I hope you made up for lost time," I said.

"I did. And the make-up time gave me a vivid imagination. And part of my job in the Army involved acting, getting people comfortable talking with me, saying things they didn’t intend to share."

I thought about that. "I hope you're not acting with me."

"Oh no, I am very serious about this, Jason. I'm not playing a game with you, not after 30 years. Only the games you want to play with me. So, I've unbuttoned your shirt and you're getting hard in the car."

"Yes, I am. I mean, I was, back then. I tell you then to unbutton your blouse and you do, just one button, so I can see the top of your breasts in your lacy bra. You look very sexy. I tell you so. You blush and turn away to look at the orange trees, heavy and fragrant."

"Like my tetas, and you want to know so you unbutton my blouse some more, feeling the soft, light cotton. Then you hesitate a moment so I take your hand and put it on my breast, through the bra. I tell you that feels good."

I leaned back on the bench and sighed. The long day was catching up to me. If only it had been a little like that in the Valley! It never was, not with Miri, not with anybody. In reality, I got my hand slapped away and the screen door slammed in my face long, long before anything reached this point back then. The heat off her breast and her her leg nuzzling mine excited me but the long travel day was dragging me down. My eyes fluttered and I shook my head to stay awake.

"Miri, this is incredible. Half of me wants to pick you up and take you back to my room and do what we're talking about, but the other half needs to get some sleep because I've got to be sharp tomorrow for my presentations. Would it be terrible if I take a rain check and we continue this conversation later? I'm sure we could keep this up for hours and it'd be a huge turn-on, but we just met again and I'd like to see you when I'm more awake and not thinking about work."

"That's not terrible," she said, "and here's your rain check." She leaned over and kissed me, so that 30 years of fantasy telescoped, for a few seconds, into a surprised reality. My hand slipped from her shoulder to cup her breast so the nipple pressed against me through her bra and shirt, like a magnet pulling my hand closer. "Mmmm, that feels good. I may drag you up to your room myself, but that would be wicked of me. I'm bad, but not bad enough to make you fail to perform tomorrow."

The touch of her lips made me vibrate. "I need all my precious bodily fluids to keep me focused tomorrow."

"Poor boy. You can save yours but . . . " she pulled away and put her finger on my lips, "I don't have to save mine, so I'm going home to touch myself all over. Maybe I'll think of you playing with my nipples, sucking them and fingering me. But you need all your juices so you can't do that. I forbid you! No whacking off tonight! Are you strong enough to save yourself for Miri?"

My erection, once throbbing, speedily deflated as my hotel bed beckoned. I could stand up without breaking my pecker.

"Yes, I'll save myself, but I'll be thinking about you in the orange grove when I go to sleep. And who knows, big boys have wet dreams." I can't believe I told her that.

"Don't make more work for the poor maids! They have a hard enough job as it is," she laughed, standing up and smoothing her clothes. She was friendly but the erotic charm ebbed, leaving a moat of emotional distance separating us, so felt I might have pushed her away.

"It's a deal, no mess for the maids, and I hope I gave you some food for thought tonight," I said, holding her hands. Let's keep the conversation going. I want to know more. Let's keep in touch." We hugged and she pressed herself close to me, her jeans against my khakis, our heights just the same so we fit together nicely. If the sound system in the hotel lobby were playing "Color My World," we would have lazily spun around in the park. But that didn't happen. My hand went to her back and the black and silver braid. Did she ever let her hair down, I wondered.

"Let me get through work chores and we'll see what happens," I said, kissing her lips.

“OK, I've been saving myself for you, Jason, so you save yourself for me. You won't be disappointed," she said, breaking away.

"Abrazos y besos por todo la noche?" I asked, trying to say in my fractured gringo Spanish, "Hugs and kisses for all the night?"

"You are a bold one!" she laughed and walked away, the emotional moat narrowing enough to ease my anxiety. My last image was of her ass swaying in the tight cowboy jeans, her braid swishing in time like a metronome, and Miri vanishing into the night in the City of Palms.

Borracho Gringo

The next morning the hotel lobby had bloomed with even more orange and black decorations, streamers and masks and hotel staffers dressed as vampires and Disney princesses and Mexican vaqueros with sombreros. A whiteboard by the registration desk showed Día de los Muertos drawings done by children, brightly colored skulls that looked more festive than scary. The public address system played Halloween-themed music, until I wanted to scream from hearing "Monster Mash" every 10 minutes. The breakfast spread had a Halloween theme, with black-dyed breakfast tacos laced with orange sauce.

I settled into my chair at the meeting room with new colleagues. The firm's marketing and business development director spoke, then her counterpart from the acquired firm. I'd been through these meetings before and was ready for my part of the program, on the need for coherent and brand-compliant sales and marketing materials.

Miri distracted me pleasantly while I waited. Texts came in that jolted me more than the strong coffee: "Can I be your bruja, your witch, and steal you away on my broom?" and "You're making the Valley a little hotter today." "I won't tell you how many times I came last night. You'll have to ask."

I finally turned my phone off so I could concentrate on my job, but I suspected Miri’s sweetly tormenting texts were stacking up. Somehow I wowwed the new folks with my PowerPoint presentation. I liked them, with their ideas for bidding on work in Mexico, something now possible with the resources now available as part of a bigger firm. I powered through lunch, got through the afternoon roundtable sessions, and finally got a break in my room before the evening BBQ fiesta at a restaurant in Hidalgo, the town south of McAllen directly across from Reynosa, Mexico, complete with a mariachi band.

Stretching out on the big bed, I checked email and voice mail. My phone pinged with texts from Miri. "Looking forward to playing tourist mañana!" and "Don't eat too much Halloween candy."

I opened a photo file that surprised me. No, she hadn't dropped her bloomers for me. Instead, she sent a picture of her face—but not the face I expected. Rather, she wore white makeup like a skull, rainbow highlighting around her eyes, lips painted black and lined, a spider web criss-crossing her forehead, a large blue paper flower tucked behind her ear, señorita style, holding an umbrella and in a 70s style granny dress with a skeleton applied to it. she wore her hair in an ornate braid circling her head with colored strips of paper woven in. 

She wrote with the photo: "Forget Halloween, Día de Los Muertos is the real deal. Want more?"

"What am I looking at??"

Miri wrote back in seconds, as if she were ready to pounce on my response. "La Catrina, the traditional female look for the Day of the Dead. Decorated skull makeup and a pretty dress. I can tell you more about it. The whole event is very festive."

"Talk about it at dinner tomorrow? I'll be in Hidalgo tonight for dinner, mariachis and everything."

"Are you going drinking in Reynosa?" she teased. Generations of high schoolers from the Valley did just that but the insane cartel violence in the Mexican border towns ended that tradition. "Maybe you'll all go to Boystown to find some pretty putas? That's what the boys used to do."

"Hell no! Event organizers said don't even think about it."

"Smart move for smart gringos."

"Gotta go, the fajitas are calling me."

Shuttle buses took us to the restaurant in Hidalgo. After the day of meetings I liked the movement and the chance to get some authentic Mexican food. Once there, the mariachi band serenaded us in their ornate costumes and big sombreros, with a female lead singer dipping and swooping on the vocals. Some of them had on the skull makeup similar to what Miri wore in the photo she texted me. I imagined Miri, singing in a mariachi group like this, songs of honor, passion, violence, bad women and good tequila. I could understand some of the lyrics. Could Miri sing like that? I imagined her in the form-fitting outfit, the bright lipstick, her hair pulled back.

Some after-dinner tequila made me wobbly and I hit my bed at the hotel with a thud. The TV stayed off, I didn't need any sports or news, just a chance to clear my head. The air conditioning cooled me, enough that I adjusted the temperature a few degrees up; Boston would give me enough chill when I returned.

Feeling bold, I texted Miri. "Back at the hotel, a little borracho."

"Borracho gringo, I can take advantage of you. Want company?"

"I'm saving myself for playing tourist with you. Let me finish the meetings then we'll see what's up."

"Are you up?"

"Prone at the moment, falling asleep."

"What about up up? You didn't touch yourself last night, did you? You promised you'd save it for me!"

"My purity is intact. I'll save everything for you. No trips to Boystown for me."

"Noted, borracho gringo."

"Voy a dormir, I got to go to sleep."

"Buenos noches, mi amor."

"Something to dream on!" I told her.

We were doing silly texting. The tequila made my head spin like a dust devil swerving down on a country road. My clothes hit the floor in a heap, I brushed my teeth and remember nothing else before the alarm rang at 6 the next day.

Marigolds in Her Hair

The last part of the meeting sailed by; the half-day tail end of any conference usually starts on time and ends early as everybody wants to get to the airport and go home. My collection of business cards and possible projects bulged in a notebook so I’d be busy when I returned to Boston on Sunday. Work moved further and further from my mind as I shucked off my business clothes for jeans, a golf shirt and baseball hat, just right for weather than had finally cooled into the high 70s. Finally, I could play tourist in my old haunts.

Miri met me in the lobby at 2 pm. She looked more modest that at the first meeting, still in jeans and a cotton top with sleeves half-way to her elbows. Running shoes replaced the sexy sandals. The erotic tension had slackened since the sizzle of the past two nights, but the day and evening stretched ahead of us so we could pace ourselves. I didn't want anxiety about our budding sensual bond to wreck my ability to just talk with Miri. An unstated calm, more like the friendship I would have expected, connected us, as if the first evening together existed only as a hot wet dream. We walked out into the afternoon sunshine, with groups of little kids in costumes and watchful adults already snaking through Archer Park to a daylight Halloween event there. She pointed me to a nondescript SUV parked on the square, faded blue, old enough to blend in at any parking.

“My tank,” she said, patting the hood. “Not much to look at, but I don’t want lookers. It's built to last, customized for hurricanes and anything else I find here! Tap on the window, feel anything?” she asked in her enthusiastic voice.

I rapped on the door glass. It felt unusually thick, like tapping on an airplane’s window.

“Sounds solid.”

“Bullet-proof. Tires won’t go flat, extra-big gas tank for lots of driving.”

“Where’s the gun rack? How do you put one in an SUV? Maybe you don’t have one.”

“They’re there, just not on the window. Look behind the front seats. Jason, remember, you’re in Texas!” she joked, kissing me. “Has Boston made you go wobbly on Texas culture?”

Once inside I looked back and, sure enough, grey gun organizers hung off the back of her seat and mine, so rifles could fit cross-ways and pistols could go into pouches arranged vertically on the organizer. The rack had no rifles and no bulges where pistols would go, as far as I could tell.

“Gun racks for SUVs, there's something to learn every day,” I mused.

“First we play tourist for the Day of the Dead. We’ll go someplace very special to me. I’ve already done my shopping.”

“Where to?”

“To meet the dead,” she said, the palm trees reflecting on her sunglasses.

“Well, it’s that time of the year, so let’s go,” I told her. “What kind of shopping did you do?”

“I went to the Mercado de McAllen. That’s my place for anything Mexico related. It's new since you were here, very authentic foods and handicrafts. I had my Day of the Dead shopping list—bundles of marigold flowers, candy skulls, little bottles of tequila, some tamales, and I have some personal items. You’ll see when we get there. Oh, and I bought something for you, change into this."

She tossed a shirt at me she had stowed next to her seat. I unfolded a dark blue guayabera, a short-sleeved, pleated shirt I remember the old guys wearing around town when I was growing up. The shirts looked hopelessly square back then, but now I could see their charm and practicality for tropical weather. They just weren't practical for Boston’s tundra weather. But, hey, I thought, I'm in the Valley now. "You can put it on when we get where we're going," she said

"Thanks, it looks just my size. Nice color. And like they say, when in Roma . . ." I joked, referring to a small town on the river in Starr County, past Rio Grande City on the road to Laredo.

"I'll take you places, but not to Roma, not this time. We've got the local color to check out first," she said.

She steered her truck, which I could tell rode lower because of the strong glass, reinforced tires and, for all I knew, bulletproofing, down to Expressway 83, heading west into the sunshine past housing developments, supermarkets, car dealerships and malls where I had remembered only farmland 40 years before. Halloween decorations still brightened the stores looking to get some spooky shoppers, maybe looking for discounted bags of candy. The developments faded away into the Valley I remembered, a flat and hot place of barbed-wire fences, fields, orchards, scattered trailer parks and low-slung mesquite trees, with the endless rows of spindly palm trees marching into the horizon. A highway overpass counted as a hill, offering a brief view of the country on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Miri steered off the highway in on to a two-lane paved road, then to a village, with neat wooden houses, dogs in the yards yawning in the sunshine, a Border Patrol station and a few stores. Compared to the new suburban hum of McAllen, the silence broken only by bird calls and the wind in low trees sounded ancient.

She pulled the truck next to a fence with other cars and trucks parked up and down the street. Once I got unbuckled the seat belt, I shucked my sports shirt and put on the guayabera, feeling its fresh linen against my skin, thinking of how Miri would feel against me, trading linen for her flesh.

"Que guapo, gringo," she said, surveying me when I hopped out of the truck. "So handsome, you look like a real Valley vato. Now, help me with the bags,” she said. I opened the back door and picked up two shopping bags. She took another.

We stood at the gate of a cemetery, old but well cared for. Families moved around setting up what looked like altars before hundreds of burial plots; some plots bore ornate granite slabs, others simply crosses with a name and dates. Angels spread their sorrowing wings, Mary kept watch over the eternally faithful.

“This way,” she said, quietly. We threaded through the hundreds of graves, hearing the sounds of conversation and even laughter. Children ate candies and adults took sips from shot glasses while setting up offerings.

She finally paused before a gravestone with two names, with birth and death dates, and none of the adornment of the other graves.

“My parents,” she said simply. “I come every year. “Nobody else does. It’s up to me. Everybody moved away or died themselves.”

The tombstone showed her parents died within months of each other, five years earlier, after long lives.

“They both worked hard and raised a good family,” she told me, starting to take items from the shopping bags. “Papa managed one of the cotton gins after working his way up from the fields, Mama raised all us kids and made sure we were clean and ready for school every day. No nonsense for her. They came to every concert I was in. They both earned their ofrenda.”

I must have looked puzzled. “Ofrenda is an altar.” Miri spread bundles of marigolds around the grave, softening the hard angles of the gravestone. Then she set up candles, tamales, a bottle of mezcal with the traditional worm in it, a silver goblet and a can of Dr Pepper. “My mom loved drinking Dr Pepper when she watched the telenovelas on TV,” she said. “Mama and Papa liked a little mezcal on Friday night after work in their special cup. I brought that, too.” She poured half of the mezcal into the goblet, took a sip and handed it to me for a sip. The liquid had no taste but gathered in warmth as it sped down my throat.

"Wow," I sputtered. "Strong stuff." I put the goblet down, but something about it drew my attention. A needling sense, at the edge of memory, told me I had seen something like it before.

With the altar and the flowers, the gravesite looked loved like the others; most had families around them, but we formed our own little family, I thought. You find family where you can.

“I never even heard of the Day of the Dead when we were growing up,” I said. “Was it a Valley thing that I just never noticed on the north side of the tracks? I missed a lot back then. You said it was more celebrated in Mexico?"

“It wasn’t happening here. When we were growing up it wasn’t a big deal at all. Día de los Muertos is more from southern Mexico. People in the Valley are from northern Mexico, with different customs. But it’s been catching on as immigrants from other parts of Mexico settle here or stop for a while on their way north.”

“How’d you learn about it?”

“Part of my travels. I saw the real deal in Latin America. I’m making up for lost time,” she said. “I can show you what it’s about. Look around us. There’s nothing scary about it. What a peaceful scene. Families go to cemeteries to talk to the dead and leave gifts for them. Marigold flowers like we brought are very popular. I’ll feed everything you want to know about it right into your brain. ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,’” she said. “No impediments for us.”

“No impediments for body or soul, I hope. You have a great memory for the Sonnets. Quick, what number was that?” I asked.

“116. Now, let me get out some pictures,” Miri said, reaching into a separate bag. “I bring these every year.” One large photo showed her parents and all the kids standing outside the timeless Catholic church on the south side of the railroad tracks in our town, everybody dressed nicely, hair combed, with jackets and ties for the boys and gloves and mantillas, or head coverings, for the girls, with the proud parents flanking the children like bookends.

“There we are, Easter mass, such good memories of the family getting together. Lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, the food, Papa played the guitar, he had a nice voice,” she said, eyes distant. "He knew all the old songs from Mexico."

“There’s me in the Army, my first assignment away from the U.S.,” she set up another photo that looked like a very different version of Miri, with hair cut short and wearing camo, kneeling with a rifle in front of a barracks with other soldiers, a camouflaged plane with no markings parked in the background. A serious look shadowed her face, projecting both determination and a touch of fear.

“I don’t know that woman,” I murmured, holding her hand. She squeezed back and ran a finger across my palm. Even in a cemetery, she could press the right buttons on me. “Where was that?”

“El Salvador, mid-‘80s, bad time for everybody. I did a lot, saw a lot.”

“Did your family worry about you? Could you even tell them what you were doing?” I couldn’t square the father who wouldn’t let his daughter date a gringo approving her service in the military in the middle of the Salvadoran civil war.

“Mama worried, Papa, too, but he was proud. You know, we were a military family. He joked that at least I was someplace warm, although I never could tell him exactly where I was at the time.”

“Why was being warm important to him?”

“He was drafted and served in Korea. He never liked to talk about it, you know, men of that generation, they did the job and came back and got on with life. But he said . . . “ she paused, her voice catching, “he said people always think Hell is hot, but it’s not, he saw Hell in Korea and it was frozen over. Hell froze over there, that’s what he said. Look what he brought back.” She opened a small box she kept in the bag with the photos and opened it.

“He brought this back and almost never showed it to anybody. A Silver Star,” she said. “Look at the commendation.” She handed me a certificate. It described his leadership, marksmanship and courage under fire.

“Brave man, I’m sorry I never met him,” I said, handing the certificate back to her.

“He got back to the Valley when he was 21 years old and said all he wanted to do was have a boring life, go to mass and thank God that he survived and make babies. He didn’t care how hot it got in the Valley, he never wanted to see snow again, and he didn't,” she smiled. “When he was sick the last time he said he wanted me to have this, because I was the only kid who went into the military. I was so honored.”

I patted her arm and gave her a tissue, since she looked teary. “Thanks, I’m OK. Thanks for being here. It’s hard to do this alone. One more picture. It won’t make me cry.”

She pulled out one more, setting it on the gravestone. I saw a beautiful young woman in a ballet pose, legs crossed, standing on point, arms gracefully in the air, looking poised to soar into the air of a stage full of other dancers.

“And that must be Connie,” I said.

“My daughter, Connie, my pride and joy. She’s a ballerina and teaches modern dance. This shows her with a ballet company in Berlin, where she’s a guest artist in residence.”

“She's from that marriage you mentioned?” I asked, curious about Miri's journey as a mother.

“With that pendejo of a husband I had? No way. After him I joined the Army and kept on the move. I didn’t have much time for men so I was going to be very very careful with my next husband. I was so careful I never found the next one. So you must wonder what happened.”

“Immaculate conception? Hey, it’s happened before,” I kidded her, looking at a nearby status of the Virgin Mary.

"Well, her real name is Milagros Concepción, milagros meaning 'miracles,' a traditional name that really pleased my parents but I always called her Connie. But I didn’t have an immaculate conception. I used a sperm bank. I wasn't getting younger, I wanted a kid, and I figured I could raise a child well enough in the military."

"Was it well enough?"

"Being a single mom is hard wherever you are. She was 10 when I took retirement, and by then she had already lived in four countries. I had enrolled her in a dance class when we were in Germany and she took to it. She was in the gifted and talented program in high school when we lived in San Antonio. She got an academic scholarship to a university in Philadelphia with a great dance program and she's worked incredibly hard to get where she is. She dances and teaches and gives talks to students interested in dance. She’s been in Germany a couple of years. That’s her base to travel around Europe."

The story sounded appealing but the absence of some details rattled in my brain. Miri, trained to be perceptive, said, "You have a question on the tip of your tongue."

"Who was the donor? How'd you choose him? Whoever he was, he must have had some great sperm to pass on to you. You don't have to talk about him, though, I don't mean to pry."

She looked at the photo of the woman poised to fly. "The sperm banks give a lot of detail about the donors. Background, age, religion, education, hobbies, why he's a donor. Mine even had a donor photo so I could see what I was getting into," she explained.

"Or, what was getting into you. Did he donate in person?" I kidded, my male mind flashing on the idea of Miri with another man.

"Oh no, that's not the way it works. I looked at a notebook of profiles, and thought and prayed and, well, finally decided. The crazy thing is, he reminded me of you."

That caught me up short. "How so? Near-sighted and short? That's not primo material for a dancer."

"No, silly. Smart, lot of interests, great education, spoke loads of languages. He was on the tall side, athletic. Good all-around guy. Jewish, even. A gringo, too, I wanted to mix up the genetic pool. And look what popped out."

"But he missed the fun part with you, making a baby."

"I was OK with that. I got the daughter and that's what mattered."

We sat on the ground, holding hands while families flowed around us with picnic baskets. The photos told a story that filled in details of her life that I could not imagine.

"I can see why the Day of the Dead is important. I like the family feeling. You look at death and connect with the other side,” I mused.

"Yeah, when I learned about it, it made sense to me. Serving in Latin America, I saw so much death, every way you can imagine. That’s why I prefer it to big Halloween celebrations. Who needs Halloween when death and real killers are all around us? Massacres and assassinations and no medical care for the poor people. Floods, fires, buses crashing into rivers. Jason, you just can't avoid death there. It’s right in your face. Violent and sudden, a different world from what we grew up with. So the people cope the best they can. Día de los Muertos is a way of coping. It tells us the dead are still with us. "

"I like to think so, watching over us."

Miri squeezed my hand. A warming affection flowed between us. I told her, "This is special, I'm glad you shared the Day of the Dead with me and shared your family. We can stay as long as you want."

“We've done what I wanted to do. I’m getting a little hungry now. Want to get something to eat? The dead may not be big eaters, but I am.”

She packed up the photos and Silver Star, leaving the marigolds and food offerings at the ofrenda. On a whim, I picked up the biggest, brightest marigold, then turned her head to me. "Here, let me add a little something to you, my lovely señorita." I tucked the flower behind her ear, so the yellow blazed against her black hair, like a morning sunburst.

"Why thank you, señor, I feel pretty, so pretty," she twirled like a dancer then hugged me like she did in the hotel lobby. "I know just the place to go for some food."

"Lead the way," I said.

Down by the River

She steered the armored truck to Highway 83, then east several exits until we turned south. We passed a few miles of farms, brush country full of mesquite trees and cactus, a rough-looking cantina or two, green farm vehicles moving like a parade, and finally down a paved stretch to a parking lot by a rambling restaurant.

“Welcome to the River Ramp Restaurant,” she said.

“Never heard of it. Is it a new place since we were growing up?”

“It opened in the mid-‘80s. It served some food and was a place where people could get their boats into the Rio Grande. Then it just kept growing and now it’s one of my favorite places to get barbeque around here. Texas Monthly just recommended it!” Miri liked to talk in exclamation points. I was coming to adore her natural exuberance for life, even in the presence of death.

We sat at a picnic table under a striped awning and ordered BBQ chicken with corn bread, green beans, black-eyed peas, all served on paper plates placed on sheets of butcher paper, and Texas sweet tea in red plastic cups, with slices of pecan pie to follow.

The restaurant stood on a rise a few feet above the banks of the Rio Grande, with a ramp leading down to the waters. This was as close to Mexico as I wanted to get. I looked across the river, muddy green water separating two countries, thick brush on both sides with fields and roads behind the river banks. The scene looked placid enough. I could see bulky trucks with tinted windows on the move on the Mexican side.

The sunset cast sparkles on the slow-moving Rio Grande, reminding me of emeralds on a ring. I heard a boat approaching on the far side of a bend in the river.

“I can see the farms, bushes along the river, big trucks driving along. I see people getting off work on the farms and going home for dinner. It's not so different from this side of the river,” I said. “I know about the drug violence on the border and I sure don’t want to go over there. But from here, with you beside me, I like the view of everything.”

“Those trucks are full of cartel gunmen, going to fuck with other cartels and the Mexican army. I come down here sometimes, you can hear the pop-pop-pop of the cuerno de chivo, goat’s horn, guys stoned out of their minds gunning down whatever they see.”

“Goat’s horn?”

“Mexican slang for AK-47. The bodies float down the river and the farmers here have to fish them out with hooks. Cartels don’t just do shooting, but beheading, skinning alive, killing whole families, boiling the bodies in acid so nobody can identify them. I’ve seen heads rolled onto dance floors to send a message. Bodies hang from bridges and people are too scared to cut them down. Politicians and police chiefs are murdered the day they take office. It's fucking insanity,” she paused. “Listen.”

The engine sounded louder. A boat came across the turn in the river, heading upstream. Its wake stirred the green waters.

“That’s the Border Patrol marine service, keeping an eye on things in case the cartels try to move drugs across on inflatable inner tubes. Guys splash along, go to a pick-up place on the shore. Big money, very dangerous. Lose the load and you’re killed when you get back if you can’t replace it. Then they kill your family, in front of you.”

The noise rose as the boat flashed past us, a machine gun mounted on the deck, an agent in a bulletproof vest and helmet manning it.

“Do the cartels shoot across the river? We’re sitting ducks here,” I said, shifting uneasily as I realized nothing stood between me and the Mexican side of the river.

“Almost never, because that’s very very stupid thing to do politically. The cartels are violent and coked to the gills but they don’t want to kill the golden goose. The U.S. stops some of the drugs and some of the immigrants, but so much gets through that violence against Americans on our side of the river? No way. They saw what happened after 9/11. You know what the drug gangs’ lower-level soldiers, the drug mules and assassins, dream of?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Being like the bosses to make enough money to relocate their families to the Valley to live in gated compounds and shop at HEB and Walmart. The jefes do that. They may be slaughtering their enemies and reporters and politicians in Mexico, but they want their kids to get a good education and their mothers to go to Mass without fear of being kidnapped. So nobody wants to go too far on this side.”

“Does that happen here?” The darkening Valley felt more dangerous by the minute.

“Rarely. But it happens. Don’t believe the talk about the Valley being safer than ever. It’s OK, but you watch what you do. I preach situational awareness on both sides of the border. Know what's going on and don't take risks.”

I picked at the last of my chicken. Miri took a napkin and dabbed the corners of my face. “I’m the one that can’t take you anywhere. Now wipe your hands.” She tore open a package of hand wipes and gave me one. “Now the hands.”

I put the wipe down. The patrol boat had chugged up the river, I could barely make out the other side in the twilight

Miri scooted over on the picnic bench beside me. What looked like Christmas lights twinkled in the awning above us, country-western music notched up a little louder from the bar inside. We sipped our sweet teas. A drop of condensation fell into her cleavage. She dabbed down her neckline with a napkin. “Oh, now look what I’ve done. My nipples will get hard and pointy if I don’t watch where those icy drops go. Dang it." Her saucy mood was returning as the pecan pie arrived.

“I’ll make a mental note that you respond well to ice,” I said. “If that’s your thing, of course.”

“I’ll pack your pecker in ice and we’ll see if that’s your pleasure,” she responded, threatening to drop an ice cube down my pants as we finished the dessert.

Miri turned her head from side to side, as if trying to lock in on a distant radio signal. I didn’t hear anything.

“Something’s not right,” she said. “Do you hear weird sounds on our side of the river?”

“Nope, everything sounds normal to me, just the wind and the birds.”

“Down on the ground!” she hissed at me and pushed me off the bench to under the table. Seconds later we heard brush crackling around the restaurant. A half-dozen men with backpacks crashed through the mesquite and ran through the parking lot. One turned, pulled a pistol out of his waistband, crouched and fired shots back the way they came. The men pulled at door handles to find a vehicle to hijack but nothing worked so they sprinted toward a treeline, trying to a rendezvous point to drop off the backpacks full of drugs, then blend into the local population before returning to Mexico by the nearby bridge or on inner tubes. Seconds later, men in DEA tactical gear ran past, rifles at the ready.

“Taking fire!” one shouted as the smuggler kept shooting with a two-handed grip. A DEA agent aimed his rifle and a laser point brightened the chest of the man shooting the pistol. We heard a muffled shot, then the laser point vanished in a spray of blood and guts and a scream. The drug smuggler fired one more wild shot that tore through the building awning above us. The DEA team moved toward him, rifles pointed in all directions.

“Fuck,” I said. “What’s going on?”

Miri squated low beside me, breathing heavily. “It must a DEA investigation that got more action than they expected. They try to take down the smugglers without this amount of violence. The smugglers usually ditch the backpacks and run back to the river to escape. I guess they figured they could make the pickup point. That guy’s a goner.”

At that moment night turned to day with the blaze of a dozen suns. Two helicopters circling overhead beamed searchlights over the restaurant and parking lot, then farther into the brush, probing for movement of the running smugglers. The searchlights moved away from us to concentrate on an area off the road we took to reach the area. A loudspeaker barked orders in Spanish.

“Are the smugglers going to shoot at the helicopters?” I said, my pulse so elevated I couldn’t think straight. This, I thought, this is a long way from Harvard Yard.

“That hasn't happened here, but Mexican Army helicopters have been hit by ground-to-air missiles. That’d be suicide here. The U.S. would consider that a terrorist act and hit back.”

The soundscape rose to painful levels with the blurred roar of helicopters, the patrol boat guarding the site from the river, an ambulance and fire trucks pounding down the road to get the dead drug smuggler and check on the DEA team and other law-enforcement teams dragging smugglers out of the brush at gunpoint. Slowly, with an ache from the tension and the cramped position, I pulled up and sat back at the picnic table. Dirt streaked my new shirt, almost muddy where I had sweat through it in the terror of the moment. Miri already sat there, smoothing her blouse down.

“Think we can blow out of here? I’ve had enough excitement for my third night back in the Valley,” I said, dazed by the rush of events.

“We should be able to get out, but we may need to give a statement and where we can be contacted. Let me go talk.”

Miri walked over to where the DEA agents, along with local police, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, Homeland and other agency representatives milled around. I sensed they knew her. After writing contact details down for the agent in charge of the scene, she returned.

I paid our bill, barely able to concentrate on my credit card receipt. The River Ramp Restaurant delivered a lot more than brisket that evening.

“Let’s vamanos, we’re good to go.” Her hand reached mine and she pulled me along to her truck, skirting the circle of light around the smuggler still lying on the ground, his chest blown open, eyes vacant, blood and entrails sprayed across the parking lot.

“This is like a bad Halloween movie, I thought I’d get shot back there,” I said once we were in the truck moving up the narrow road to the highway.

“Halloween’s done, you’ve seen some of Día de los Muertos,” she said. “You must be a wreck. What do you want to do now? Your call.”

The truck seat pulled me in like quicksand. A wave of tiredness washed over me after the adrenaline rush of the shootout, until I felt her hand on my thigh, massaging me back to a lot more awakeness.

“I think I’ve already seen the Night of the Dead. Back to the hotel? I need to change shirts and give this one a rinse," I said.

She turned, smiling in that quiet way that melted me 30 years earlier.

“Well, I’m not going to take you to Reynosa. The hotel it is. The night is still young.”

I Could Get Lost

Thirty minutes later I slipped the electronic key into my hotel room door, heard a click and we were in. Everything of the past days crashed over me again—the flight from Boston, tiring enough for me, then hearing from Miri, then our first flush of contact, the intensity of the work meetings, BBQ on the river, then the visceral shock of a border gun battle. And now, Miri and I stood inside the cool confines with a king-sized bed with fresh sheets and fluffed pillows, American hotel standard.

“Down to the bar for a night cap?” she asked, looking unfazed by the horrors. She clutched a backpack I hadn’t noticed, yet another surprise from her bags of tricks in the SUV.

“I need a shower, that’s what I need. I feel like I’ve been awake for a week,” I mumbled, torn between kissing her and shucking off my sweaty, dirty-streaked guayabera and jeans, looking disheveled after my endless minutes flat on the ground under a picnic table.

“Your first firefight can do that to you, nobody knows how they’ll respond. You’ll get used to it,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice, sitting on the bed. She patted the blanket. “I’ll just make myself at home.”

Her blasé attitude to a smuggler-DEA shootout unnerved me.

“My FIRST firefight, are you loco? You may have done God knows what in the military, but I don’t handle guns, I was never in any organization more militant that the Boy Scouts. I can tie slip knots but I sure as hell don’t know anything about guns. Even if I am from the Valley.”

“Slip knots?” she purred with a glint in her eyes. “Jason, I should have hooked up with you a long time ago. But you’re right, you must be scared out of your mind. I apologize. Go take your shower.”

She handed me a bathrobe she grabbed from a closet. The white cotton felt good in my hand, something safe and dry and clean. She said, “Go, get clean, and then I’ll tuck you and go home, we can call it an early night. It’s already 8 o’clock!”

I picked up track shorts from my open suit case then stepped away. The bathroom mirror showed a haggard naked man staring at me, 14 hours past shaving, terrified by the flying bullets, jerked by curiosity and lust toward the woman with dark eyes on the other side of the door. The long-past-5-o’clock shadow gave me an even more bleary appearance, so I shaved.

The first blast of water was too cold, then too hot, but I finally found the right temperature. The water cascaded off me, washing off the smell of bullets and death on a Valley evening. Miri was right: who needs Halloween when the devils and killers can run right past you at a BBQ place?

Miri, I thought, soaping off my groin and perking up. Miri, like mira in Spanish. Look. What did I see when I looked at her? A high school crush that never went anywhere? A stranger with a familiar name who sort-of-stalked me on Facebook and then chose the perfect moment to parachute back into my life? She was the Aztec Princess who dripped ice down her cleavage as I stared, who dreamed of us fucking and sucking in the orange groves. Through my closed eyes I pictured her on the other side of the bathroom door, doing . . . what? Rifling my wallet, turning on my laptop to find out who knows what? Maybe she even played a mean joke on me and walked out after scribbling a note on hotel stationery.

I heard a knock on the bathroom door.

“Hey, how much longer are you going to be in the shower? You’re going to turn into a prune.”

“Not much longer, just getting the soap off,” I yelled over the hot drizzle of water.

“I have to pee.”

“Just a few minutes.”

“Nah, I can’t wait. Close your eyes! Don’t listen. I’m actually very shy about these things.”

The door opened and, being a bad boy, I squinted through the foggy shower door. Sure enough, she unzipped her jeans and dropped them and her panties to the floor.

“I told you don’t look! If you were faster in the shower we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’ll be done in a minute.” My eyes squeezed shut when I turned my face into the shower stream and the blast of hot water drowned out everything. I barely heard her flush, but I felt it when the shower temperature jumped enough to make me squeek.

The door closed. I turned off the water and just stood there dripping, then I gave a shake like a big wet hairy Baby Boomer dog. The shower woke me up, and that included a little spryness in my cock, which I had soaped up while imagining Miri doing the honors. Calm down, I thought, don’t make any assumptions about a woman, even one who daintily uses the bathroom while I’m showering, no assumptions these days.

The fluffy towel felt good, refreshing me while the gritty water swirled down the drain. OK, better, I thought, looking at a new man in the foggy mirror. Calmer, more alert and open to whatever’s going on here. I shrugged on the bathrobe and the track shorts, wondering at what I’d find on the other side.

I heard music wafting from a cellphone cradle on the side of the bed, with two small speakers. After the clamor of the shower, the soft wave of music surprised me. I had expected her to turn on the TV. But no, Miri put her phone into the cradle and now I heard bossa nova. First the music struck me, then I saw Miri, lying on her side on the bed, eyes closed, still in that modest blouse but with her jeans folded neatly over a chair.

“So clean! Now it’s my turn to take a shower. I’m all stinky from running around and protecting your tush at the River Ramp.”

“I like to think of you under the table, but not in that context.”

“Ha! Good one. Let me go into the ladies room and freshen up. I have a little backpack with clean clothes so you don’t have to worry about me putting these grimy old things on.”

Miri did an adorable wave and shoulder dip, then the bathroom door closed on me. The sound of singing came from the bathroom, indistinct sounds of  something not in English. I sat on the bed, impatient for her to emerge. The shower steam, I reflected, created a hothouse for our sexual tension to unfurl, bringing us back to the earlier time of naughty talk and bodies pressed together on the park bench.

Finally, the shower and singing stopped and, after another lady-like half-hour of primping and prettying, the door opened. Wreathed in steam, Miri peeked around the corner with just her head peering out, her freshly braided hair hanging down the side.

"Ready or not, here I come!" she said brightly. But she came slowly. First one nude leg emerged from the door, then the rest of her flowed past the door frame until she stood there. She covered herself and a little nothing of a bra with a clean business shirt that I had hung in the closet, which she must have grabbed when I was showering. Below the shirt peeked silky rose-colored panties that looked completely fresh, right out of the box. However she did it, Miri knew how to clean up for a night on the town. She was dressed to kill.

“Ah, here you are, fresh as a daisy from your shower. Are you awake or so exhausted you need to get your beauty rest?” she said dreamily as “The Girl from Ipanema” played in the background.

"You're waking me up just fine," I told her. 

I stood abashed at her display, those toned olive legs sliding up into her panties, the braid curling around her neck like Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.

“Bossa nova, how did you know?” I said gamely, at a loss for other words.

“You’ve been there, you love the music. I read your FB posts, Jason, you’re like an open book. Or an open play list. You know the words, ‘Tall and tan and lean and lovely, the girl from Ipanema . . . “

“. . . And when she passes, each one she passes goes, ahhhh,” I completed the line for her, then she joined in: “When she walks, she's like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle.”

"Hey, listen to this!" she said brightly, jumping from the bed. "Now imagine us at Carnaval in Rio and you meet me. Maybe it would be like this?"

Miri turned off the cellphone music and began to sway her hips, licking her lips and gazing at me with those hypnotic hazel eyes. Then, in that low sexy voice I remembered from 30 years before, she began singing "The Girl from Ipanema" in perfect Brazilian Portuguese, pushing yet one more erotic button. Around she swirled, moving around the room, touching her hair, moving her arm across her breasts, holding out her hand to me to join her in our own samba. That's an offer I couldn't, wouldn't refuse.

"You ARE Mrs. Robinson" I whispered in her ear as we moved together in the room.

"You seduced me with that poetry 30 years ago, I'm just accepting the offer," she breathed back, loosening the tie on my bathrobe. "The offer I had to turn down way back then."

"I'll take 'The Girl from Ipanema' over 'Color My World,'" I said, kissing her swan-like neck, smooth and curving, where a fresh daub of perfume shot straight to my cerebral cortex. "I knew you had a beautiful singing voice, but I always pictured you doing Tex-Mex music and show tunes.”

I unbuttoned my shirt she wore then slipped it off her and tossed it on the floor. My fingers wandered over her ass through the rose panties, soft and yet muscular, like the rest of her. "Yep, better than Selena's," I said.

I sat down beside her on the bed, the sheets still tautly pulled up in contrast to my shirt, her jeans and the bathrobe thrown about. Miri's tan curves and smooth leg against mine pushed me to a state of pulse-racing awakeness. That moment, where the leap into the emotional unknown balances against the hesitancy of experience, arrived. I knew some of Miri but she was as mysterious as an island glimpsed through the haze of a distant bay. I looked one more time and then took the leap.

"Here we are," said Miri. "I like what I see. Let me see how you kiss on a bed," she said, her arms folded around me and pulled me to her so our lips me. We sank against the bed, in the dark of the Texas night. "Let's pull back these sheets, and get a little more comfortable," I told her. We rolled off the bed, one on each side, and pulled the sheets back, then slipped between them. They felt deliciously clean and cool against us, especially after my shower. I fell back against the pillows, sinking deep into their softness.

"I could get lost in you," she purred. We were lying side by side, my chest pushed against her lacy bra so her cleavage swelled upward.

"I could get lost in those boobs," I replied, licking my finger and running it from her lips, down her chin and throat and down that long, flushed slide to the bra. "Nice curves. Nice tetas," I whispered.

"Good for what ails tired visitors," she said. Her warm fingers reached down to brush my cock through my track shorts. I jumped at the contact, a push of her palm against me before her fingers moved down my thigh.

"I see you're waking up, you're not so tired after all the excitement. A firefight can be a real stimulant," she said, slipping her hand down my shorts.

"If you survive the firefight. One was quite enough for me," I said, slipping my fingers into her bra to flick them against her nipple, holding it, give it a squeeze that made her shudder this time. My wet finger circled it and I looked into her eyes.

"Now who's waking, those tetas are looking for some attention. I'll leave them in their little bra houses for now but I can tell they want to come out and play."

"Play like on the Friday Night Lights we used to go to at the football stadium?" she said. We hadn't talked much about those years in our home town, that place divided by the railroad tracks. "Those were great times there."

"Didn’t you sing the National Anthem before one of the games. Against Brownsville, wasn't it?" I said between nibbles with my teeth on her other nipple, the bra cup pulled down.

"Good memory! I was so happy to do that, all my relatives came to the game."'

Your picture was in the newspaper and the yearbook, I looked at it a lot. You looked so cute in your long choir dress." As turned on as we were, we wanted the luxury, even the need, of time to talk and stretch out the moments. 

"And now here we are, the singer and the engineer," she sighed. My hands ran up and down her spine like I was playing a saxophone solo drawing squeaks and trills from her. 

"Let’s see if I can get your engine firing on all cylinders," I said. I sat cross legged on the bed and rolled her over on her stomach. "Let me take a look at you and give you a back rub. I'll let my fingers do the walking." She spread out on the cool clean sheets in her bra and panties, so delectable I could have simply pulled those panties down and slid into her there and then, but I wanted us to work for that.

My hands roamed her neck and shoulders, touching against the long braid that I moved to the side, with respect and awe. "The firefight must have left you a little tense, I can feel it. You're not the cool cucumber you appear to be, guapa," I said, bearing down. "Yes, you need some TLC."

She turned her head to the side, eyes closed. Some body lotion would be dandy at the moment, but I'd make do with what Mother Nature gave us. I moved on to her shoulders, then down her arms. I paused to run my thumb down her spine and into the elastic of her rose panties, I pulled them down an inch for two to massage the crack of her ass, so she pushed up to meet me.

"I like that, guapo. You're an engineer who can get the job done. I can't wait for you to lay some pipe."

"I need to prepare the landscape first, do a little digging"—my hand went between her legs and stroked her lips through the panties—"around. Lots of hills and tunnels need a field study."

"Show the blueprints when you have a moment," she breathed. I pushed her bra straps down off her shoulders but left it on her, still hooked, keep a scrap of clothing on for anticipation.

"I'll add it to my to-do list for the project plan." I stretched out beside her, so pressed against her and licked and nibbled her ear while my hand played along her back and settled between her legs, stroking her smooth thighs higher and higher. She sighed and turned toward me while I caressed her top and bottom. Miri's breathing got deeper, so I kept going. Her panties were getting wet. I moved my finger to my face and smelled her on them.

"I like that aroma, should I keep going?" I teased her.

"Let me see," she said, lifting my fingers to her face. "Yes, you're hitting all the right places, Mr. Engineer, don't stop."

"Feels good lying on your stomach, driving you a little loco?" I asked.

"A lot loco, cabron. Keep that finger fucking going. Me gusta mucho.”

"Oh, we're talking Spanish, now, hmm?" I said. My fingers slipped inside her panties so could stroke her pussy lips directly, teasing her enough that she gulped. I covered her deliciously firm tush with my hand, pressing down, then moved to her lips. "Your culo back here is very tempting, I may have to just play with that for a while."

"OK, but don't, don't, um, stop on my coño, my cunt. God, I can't talk now."

"We're both very flexible, Miri," I said, rolling her on her side so we faced each other. My left arm looped under her shoulder so I could pull her toward me, my right hand slipped down the front of her panties, my finger rotating around her pussy lips and pausing, pushing, against them pushing in a little.

"Still like this, keep going? Going in the right direction, Miri?"

Her tongue pushed into my mouth, warm, wet, alive, delirious. "Stop asking and just keep fucking mi coño. I can't stand it."

"Unhook your bra so I can feel you against me better, skin to skin," said, in between our tongues dancing. "Your nipples can nestle against me and that would feel fantastic." My fingers worked gradually between her cunt lips, moving around, pressing below her lips, stroking her ass, trying to caress her everywhere at once.

"Yow, you're so fuzzy, I'll call you Peludo," she said, wrapping her arms around me. Her breasts pushed around me, the dark hard nipples vanishing into me. I imagined her silky black and silver braid oscillating behind her, like the snap of a whip, wrapping us both up. My arm around her slid down her back, down to small of her back, so I could stroke her front and back, pushing her closer into my fingers, now working in and around her. Rather than speed up, I willed myself to slow my stroking, stretch out the experience, make her feel every insistent flutter on her clit, rather than a hard-charging gallop to the end. We'd get there, sure, but all in good time.

Miri nestled her head against my chest, as I felt her passion become more focused, more intense on rolling herself into compact ball of yearning.

“What Marvell said,” I said, a line bursting up from memory for the moment.

“Hmmm,” she said. “Marvell said what?”

“’Let us roll all our strength and all, Our sweetness up into one ball,’ that’s what he wrote. The more turned on you get, the more you’re like one big ball of sex, ready to explode,” I told her, hands thrumming her all over.

“Oh, fuck Andrew Marvell, just fuck me,” she gasped.

My hands on her back and her cunt pushed closer together and she hung on to my neck like I was her lifejacket in a roiling ocean. Her little yelping sounds, in between breaths, reminded me of a kitten taking her first steps, going places she'd never gone before.

"Oh Jason, oh Jason," she cried. "Hold me tight!" We kissed hard when she pushed herself against my hand one more time, grinding her hips so my finger sank deeply into her, massaging her G-spot while the other hand grabbed her ass cheek so that I could hold her open. "It's tooo much," she said finally, easing my hand away from her pussy, her black public hair drenched in her wetness. "Just hold me, hold me, that's what I want right now."

Miri’s eyes flickered then shut, while, like a drowsy kitten, she molded herself against me, warm and wet with the scent of cinnamon and milk. But if she felt like a kitten, she also struck me, with her curvingly fawn body, as fine-tuned and taut as a bow after the arrow flies. Kitten and weapon—the mysterious Miri could be both at the same time.

Minutes passed in the McAllen darkness, the early November breeze drifting through the palm trees surrounding Archer Park like sentinels. Miri yawned and shivered, so I pulled the sheets up over us. Her eyes opened and the endless shimmering braid moved closer to us, into the warmth.

"That was a ride," she said, hugging me. "I'm glad we have the covers. I feel cold."

"Beginner's luck. I must have found the right places to touch. Who knows what'll happen if we practice," I said, stroking her head. I felt cold, too—the AC must have been cranked higher than I recalled.

We warmed under the covers, burrowing under with just our heads sticking out. Miri’s braid flowed around us. Her eyes closed again as her hand, with those nimble musical fingers, flowed on its own to stroke my chest, down my stomach and into my track shorts, close, but not touching, my cock. She played me like a singer practicing for an aria, high notes and low notes. I wriggled around to get her hand closer to me.

“Not so fast, gringo, the night is still young. I still need to wake you up a little more. You’re sleepy from all your travels and work,” she said, her eyes shut.

“No, really, I’m wide awake,” I gulped. Her long fingernails scratched at the base of my pecker, now high and hard enough to raise a tent in the blankets.

“Something’s happening, I can feel that,” she said, reaching down to pull my track shorts off. “Yes, I can’t see anything but there’s definitely movement under there. I’d better put my Army tracking skills to work and do some recon.”

Miri threw pulled back the covers so in the dim light she could get the lay of the land. Her hand circled my cock, just the base, and I jumped a little. “You’re making things hard for me,” I told her, stroking her cheek when she put her head on my chest.

“I like making things hard, making you hard, that’s easy to do. I always wondered after high school what this would been like.”

“But you were in the spring musical! You were so innocent! You couldn’t think about these hard and wet things!”

“You didn’t know me. I didn’t know you, but you held my hand like you had other things in mind.” She moved closer and kissed the shaft so lightly I could barely tell what happened. “Did you jack off in college thinking about me, about a moment like this when you could be sucking my nipples and have your fingers in my coño, licking me until I screamed. I bet you did. You liked to think about what never happened.”

“Yes, I did,” I admitted. “It took a long time but you came back to me, like a ghost. Like on the Day of the Dead.”

“On the Day of the Dead you remember those who have passed on and bring them reminders of their life, like food and drink and pictures. It’s a happy time, not a sad time. The dead see us and are pleased. As long as we remember them, they see us. My pussy’s not dead because you remembered it, didn’t you, even if you never saw it or tasted it. My breasts are alive because you wanted to touch them so long ago, but you never did. But now you can.” She put my hand on her curving breast, the nipple crinkled and elastic.

“Feels good, now? Like they say, 49 is the new 19,” She licked my ear and my cock jumped in her hand. I pushed my hips up but she moved her hand away.

“But has your cock passed on to the other world? I never knew it when it was alive. Maybe it’s not dead, just asleep. Perhaps it needs Miri to remember it and then it will be happy and watching us. You think so, has it been dead and sad for a long time?” Her eyes sparkled like the flames of candles, jumping and dancing in the low light of the room.

“Maybe it wasn't dead but not so lively for a long, long time,” I said when she nuzzled her head closer to my groin, her muscled warmth pressing down on me. I could have come right that minute but I looked away and breathed in and out.

“Maybe an offering of my lips will make it look kindly on me, from the other world, you think?” She kissed the tip with those red lips, then put her head back in my lap.

“You can feed it to me, like an offering on the Day of the Dead.” Miri guided my right hand to my cock. “You call me your Aztec Princess, so you can honor your princess with your liquid. But be warned, your Aztec Princess may make more demands on you.”

“You are a devil, aren’t you,” I breathed. The room spun around me, talk of the dead and the living making me dizzy.

“More an angel come back to your life, and you to mine,” she said. Miri licked my cock up and down, then put her hand between her legs to cover it with her moisture.

“As the princess priestess, I have to make you my assistant in preparing the offering,” she said, running a fingernail up and down my trembling cock. Really, this was too much.

“'Priestess' doesn’t sound very Catholic to me,” I said, venturing out of sex into the spiritual realm.

“Cállate, gringo! Be quiet! Day of the Dead is home for many traditions, going way back before Cortés conquered Mexico. We’re fucking, not talking about anthropology,” she said. “No college talk or I throw cold water on your thingie and it shrivels like a prune.”

“No, mi reina, my queen,” I said. She had a point—I had to shut down my intellectual distance, which reared its head at awkward moments, and concentrate on the lithe body, hands and mouth sliding around me.

She moved my hand to my cock. “I am pleased with the state of your contrition. You are devoted to your Aztec Princess. That makes the Princess smile and bestow her gifts.” Miri moved my hand on my shift, then took the top of it into her mouth, enough that I jumped again. “You are restless, your offering yearns for acceptance, doesn’t it? You want to rise from the dead to the living, to join us together.”

I threw my head against the soft thick pillow. "I'm about as risen as I'll ever be, Miri. Do something about it! Or should I?"

"What does my big hard gringo want to do about it? Do you want to show what an hombre you are with your favorite señorita?" she said, a taunting smile on her lips once she removed them from my cock. "You tell me, Jason. You tell me while I take my panties off, so you can see all of me. I’m not so shy now." She eased the panties, down damp with her dew, the rest of the way, then held them in front of my nose and rubbed them on my cheek.

“You like?” she said.

The world turned reddish with lust driven by her teasing. She leaned over me so the long braid stroked my face, part caress with a hint of whip moving against me.

Miri sat beside me, so the dim light in the room outlined her, head cocked, waiting to hear what I wanted to tell her, one hand on my cock, another fluttering over my chest, the braid moving and probing like a living entity.

"You could climb on to me, so I can see my cock slide into your coño. That would be sexy and I could feel your culo pressing against my thighs," I gulped.

"Yes, I like that idea, so I can look down and see what I am doing to you, and feel your offering deep inside me," she said, nimbly turning to position herself above my erection, her thighs spread as she straddled me. "I will be a vaquera, riding my stallion. Maybe I can put a bit in your mouth to steer you?"

"Mmmm, you're steering me fine with the manual control, mi reina," I said. She licked her fingers, then spread the moisture on her cunt lips so they glistened even more, ruby-like against her black pubic hair.

"Feel how wet I am now, how much I want you. I'm ready to be your coy mistress, at last, at last," she said. "You like this?" Her eyes locked on to mine as she lowered herself, inch by agonizing inch, on to me. She grabbed my hand and wrapped it around my cock so I could steer it into her, feel us joining together. "Leave your hand so you can play with my clit. You can see it now, can't you, how open I am now that you're inside me."

Miri rose above, her breasts swayed before me to a bossa nova rhythm. I propped myself up to kiss them, first one and then the other, so she bit her lip.

"Tasty," I said, "like chocolate drops in caramel ice cream. Good enough to eat."

"You're the dessert now, I've got your popsicle stick in me and I like the way it feels," she said, still looking at me as if she wanted to hypnotize me, to bind us together through her gaze.

"Drink to me with thine eyes," I burst out, my intellect still wrestling with my reptile side for its space in the bucking moment.

"I want to kiss you, gringo," she said. Miri bent over, still riding me, bending so she came down to my face. I pushed up to reach her so our tongues met and danced, longing, hungry, a beat of touching and circling and licking. She paused, panting, flattening herself against my heaving chest as I pushed into her, back and forth.

"I like that, the way you are touching me," she breathed. Those chocolate-drop nipples burrowed into my chest hair, hiding, captivating.

"We're touching each other, you're surrounding my cock with your soft lips," I said, my arms encircling her, then I moved my hand down to the small of her back to press down, so Miri could feel me from two directions.

"I like that, the way you're making me feel so wanted," she said, as I sucked on her ear lobe. "I want to look at you more."

"Look all you want, but I hope I don't turn into Ozymandias," I said. "Don't make me a pile of sand!"

"Oh, you are just too much! Marvell and now Shelley, you know how to fuck a girl with your sweet words," she laughed. "Here, let me sit up so I can really see you while you're filling me up."

Miri, as fluid as a dancer, sat up, still gliding up and down on me, never breaking the look between us as she rose. One hand cupped a breast to stroke her nipple, the other held my hand as it circled the base of my cock. Her movements created a ballet with hips and hands and lips and tetas and coño moving in unison. I pursed my lip as Miri's sexual symphony built to a finale inside me inside her.

"Let go, Jason, stop thinking and let go and I'll let go that's what I want," she said. Her hips hopped up and down on me while she pushed down with her hand on my cock, creating a sensual overload that flooded my senses as I really did let go and came inside her, wave after wave that scrunched my eyes, arched my back and had me holding her hand even tighter so she could squeeze every drop out of me. Hovering above me, Miri moved her hand from her breasts to her clit so she could stroke herself into a counterpoint of squeaks and moans while I sounded like I was mooing and yelping.

Spent, she toppled over, drenched in sweat that sparkled on her skin and mingled with my sweat when we spooned together. We huddled, sticky and breathless and sleepy, under the covers.

We fell asleep together, long enough to dry off. I slowly awoke, opening my eyes to see Miri propped on her elbow, gazing at me with a look halfway between dreamy and subdued. I pulled her toward me so I could kiss her cheek and her forehead, and run a finger across her lips and across her collarbone. I made us cups of tea from the service set on a table, so we could warm up, sitting against the headboard of the bed with the covers up to our chins. We needed a rest, like the two middle-aged people we tried to forget we were.

"A penny for your thoughts, mi reina," I said, slowly, uncertain about my first words in the raw unexplored world we had discovered.

"You'll think I'm a little loco," she replied.

"I couldn't think that. Say what's on your mind and I'll listen. No jokes, no impediments."

"Back at the cemetery, I felt something."

"Día de los Muertos is serious business. I can see how it brings up emotions and memories." I wrapped my arms around her and stroked her hair. Miri felt smaller, vulnerable, the brash and beautiful Miri shivering at a memory of our long, violent, loving day on the border. "I'm here, Miri, I'm here. Take your time."

Her eyes closed as if she were looking inside, coaxing a tangible thought from a swirl of hints and flickers of light.

"My parents, I felt they saw us. I haven't felt that before. I've never brought anybody with me to the cemetery. I felt good in the past and talked to them, but it was a one-sided conversation. This time they felt, I don't know, happy that we were together. I didn't see them, it wasn't a vision, but I sensed them. Then I remembered something Papa said a long time ago."

I wanted to grouse that he told her she couldn't date a gringo, but I stifled the thought. My silence comforted her as she gathered the memory.

"It was after my divorce. My parents had wanted me to make the marriage work, but no way I'll let a man hit me. I had gone to their house before I signed up for the Army. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was 20 years old. I was crying, Mama was crying, Papa sat at the kitchen table with us. He got so mad about the situation he went outside and walked around. Then he came back. Papa seemed calmer, more sad than angry." She paused. "He held my hand, which he hadn't in years, and said, 'Mijita, my little daughter, maybe I was wrong, about you and the gringo. I was angry at what we had to put up with from the gringos and I didn't want you mixing with a gringo boy, not like that. You were upset, I know, but we thought that's what would help you to the life you should live. We wanted you to be with a man from our people. A man with our values. I know all about how gringos can treat people like us. But the man you married, he didn't treat you right. All the anger, all the tears, I hate him for making you hurt. So maybe we should have let you date your gringo and get that out of your system. Or whatever would have happened. You could see what different men were like and protect your heart. How much worse could he be than a man who hits women?' Better to be happy with a gringo than beaten up by a pendejo.'"

"He said all that?"

"Yes. By then you were gone and I wanted to get out of the Valley, so I joined the Army. Then in the cemetery, those words came back to me. Papa and Mama were there with us and they were glad I finally had a date with my gringo. Am I crazy? I felt more at peace, like they wanted to meet you. I felt them smiling when you put the marigold in my hair, because you're a good man who treats me with respect," She reached for a tissue from a box on the nightstand and blew her nose.

"That's what the Day of the Dead is about, Miri. Your papa said something wise then, and I'm sure he was looking at us. I'm glad I got to meet them in a special way, finally. Better late than never," I told her, kissing away a tear slipping down her cheek.

“That kiss helps, thanks.”

I was quiet; should I say what was on my mind?

“Miri, I have to be honest about something. I also felt something at the cemetery.”

“Yes, mi amor, what’s that? Your family came to visit you there?”

“Not quite. They're all at another cemetery. It’s about the goblet we drank the mezcal from. Do you know where it came from, the cup?”

“Mama gave it to me before she died. She got it from her mother and I remember my abuela, my grandmother, getting it out on Friday evenings. It’s always been in the family as far back as anybody remembers.”

I paused. “It’s beautiful, with the grape leaves and laurels engraved on it. It looked ancient,” I paused. “Did your mother light candles on Friday night when your family used the cup?”

“Yes, she did it just like her mother and grandmother did. And she covered her eyes, I don’t know why. Just a custom.”

“Did she say anything when she did that, any phrases you remember?”

“Nothing comes to mind. The adults would say salud and then kiss the kids. I do the same with Connie. I just assumed it was a family tradition,” she said. “What do you think?”

What could I say? The details pointed in one direction.

“Miri, this may sound crazy on my part, but those are Jewish traditions, with the cup and the candles and the women covering their eyes. They’re welcoming the Sabbath.”

“Wow. Nobody ever talked about that. To me, we were good Catholics, going to the big church, catechism, midnight mass at Easter and Christmas. It was something we did, like the whole family getting together on Thanksgiving.” She pulled the sheet tighter around her breasts in the chilly room.

“But, you know, Jason, you’re reminding me of something. When I was in Washington once for training with sine Israeli intelligence people, one of the Israelis invited me to dinner on a Friday. She had relatives in the area. I didn’t have other plans, so I agreed. She took me to her cousin's home. All the kids and grandkids were around a table, sort of like my family's fiestas. She said that's what Israelis do, get the family together. I didn’t make the connection, but her cousins also did all those rituals, and they said prayers and had bread that they cut up and ate with dinner.”

“Challah.”

“Right, that’s what they called it. This all felt familiar but I just didn’t think of that in terms of what my parents did. That’s so strange.”

“Did you do the same ritual with Connie, when she was growing up?”

“Oh, sure, that was a favorite mother-daughter activity. She loved getting my blessing. But we didn’t think of it as anything religious, just something to start the weekend. I still do it when we’re together.”

“Somewhere along the line, Miri, your family picked up Jewish rituals. Way, way back. Maybe a Jewish man converted to Catholicism and married into the family and brought the habits with him. Or somebody worked for a Jewish family, like a housekeeper, and learned about the wine and candles.”

“Or . . . “ she said, nuzzling against my neck. “You’re circling around what you really think. I can tell.”

“Or somebody in your family was Jewish a long long time ago, back in Spain or Portugal, and moved to Mexico as converts to Christianity, but secretly held on to Jewish practices. They were called ‘marranos.’”

“Pigs, that’s what they called them?” She looked doubtful. “I never heard any stories like that. We were mestizos, very mixed, European and Indian blood.”

“I can see that in you, but we’re talking about family matters from hundreds of years ago, the 1500s. Who knows how anybody's family evolves in five centuries. Hey, 500 years ago my relatives might have been Mongol raiders riding little horses across the steppes into Russia. Anyway, I wanted to say what I felt at the cemetery, that’s all. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.” I massaged her neck and shoulders, my hand against that adorable mestizo body.

“I’ll have to think about it and ask my older relatives about their stories. But they are very Catholic and may not want to hear about this.”

“Or maybe they want to talk but are afraid to say anything. The fear is very real and understandable. Silence helped hidden Jews survive in the New World. Being outed as a marrano would get you killed by the Inquisition.”

“How do you know so much about this, Jason? You’re a gringo and you live so far from here. What’s the deal?”

“You know I'm Jewish, so I know a little history about the Jews getting kicked out of Spain and Portugal. I learned they moved to New Spain and the border region may be full of hidden Jews, on both sides of the river. All that history around me and I never knew about it. And here we are. Maybe you had some secret Jewish radar nerves in your coño that pulled me to you. Right back here in Hidalgo County.” I kissed the top of her head. “There, my blessing on your alma, your soul.”

She wiggled against me, aligning our naked bodies in the strange new emotional landscape.

“Maybe I really am a JAP,” she giggled. “A Jewish Aztec Princess. Will I still be that when you get back to Boston tomorrow night? Or this just a stupid thing that happened and you’ll be texting your other novias, your sweethearts, when you get home?” She sounding joking, but I recognize female anxiety when I hear it. The light tone barely covered a gnawing concern.

“Miri, you hit me up at just the right time in life. No, there’s no novia back in Boston, so don’t worry. Now in McAllen, that’s another story. Let me tell you about her, she’s so sexy and warm and squeezable. Hey, what a surprise! She’s right here in the room with me, what if she sees us!”

“What if she does see us, will she join us under the covers? Maybe she’s cold!” Miri purred at me.

For five seconds I lost my power of speech. Mysterious Miri just kept surprising me.

“I think you’re enough for now, Miri, you’ve already drained me dry.”

“We’ll see about that, maybe in the morning, in the shower? We’ll see how drained you are.”

“Thinking about breakfast in bed?”

“Your ham, my eggs, so beautiful together.”

“Good thing I don’t keep kosher.”

She looked at my pecker. "Oh, you look kosher enough for me. When is your flight tomorrow? I hope we have some time together.”

“Mid-afternoon. We don’t have to rush. Besides crazy sex while soaped up in the shower, do you have any other ideas? No more shootouts, please.”

She thought. “Mmmm, I can take you the Mercado. We’ll get you more shirts and belts and sandals and make you the most Mexican-looking gringo in all of Boston.”

“I’ll need a certificate from you saying I’m not guilty of cultural appropriation. They get touchy in Harvard Square about those things. You'd look sexy in a Red Sox shirt and nothing else."

She gazed across the room, past the huge TV monitor to a gap in the curtains to a sliver of window, revealing the trees of Archer Park, swaying in the breeze blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, 80 miles to the east.

“We can get touchy in Harvard Square,” she said, “if it’s not too cold. I’m a Valley girl, you know, my blood will take time to adjust to that eastern weather.”

“I know what ice does to your nipples. You showed me that. It made a big impression on me. I could go out to the ice machine down the hall and get a bucket of ice and we could do some science experiments.”

“OK,” she said, “but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Are you a manly gringo who can handle that? A little ice here”—she touched my chest—“and a little ice there”—she wrapped her soft fingers around my cock, stirring a little under her touch.

“What’s this?” she exclaimed, gazing again my stiffening kosher cock, with her hand moving it back and forth, back and forth, like the palms outside our window. “I believe our friend is waking up from a very short nap,” she said, kissing the tip and, again, locking eyes with me.

I leaned against the pillows as my Aztec Princess slid on to me. A long Valley night beckoned us to explore and learn and wonder.

Stroking my face with her delicious fragrant hand, Miri said, “Jason, we're going to have fun bringing the dead back to life."

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