Female. 8 years old. 3’5. Hazel eyes that burned like rusty flames around a black sun that she got from her mother. Coca-Cola-black hair that reached down to her bottom and in sunlight, glowed cherubic gold. Puffy cheeks with lips between them that opened to reveal Chiclet-white teeth whenever cooed to sleep.
Died in the backseat of this reddish car, coughs scraping out of her little larynx like a knife over toast, Hail Mary cries of, “Daddy,” and “Papa,” in between, before less oxygen came in to her lungs than out, before the whistley wheezing became airless choking, before the grip she had on my hand became the soft scratching into my palm, before I looked back at her as we pulled into the hospital parking lot and never saw her again. This was before I went kind of crazy, before doing and saying a bunch of stupid shit, before losing my job and her mother, and before having to beg everyone not to leave. It didn’t work.
I’m not going to go too much into detail of what my life was before Lilia, or after, because none of it is of any use anymore. Let’s just say driving people from point A to point B in this car is all I’m good for now. It happens. Anyways, it’s my overnight shift I took on after not making enough during daylight hours last month, bills piling up near the front door like hourglass sand.
I start as the sun finishes setting, what’s left of its purple residue still lingering over the Houston skyline. I clean the interior of my car, vacuuming the seats and picking up anything left by passengers. Sometimes, I’ll find a long strand of hair that I hold up to a light. I always examine them closely, and they all glow the same cherubic gold so I’m never sure how long it’s been since Lilia… you know. I then let the strand of hair go to be devoured by the damp ether until it returns to my car. I’ve accepted this as simply another process of the universe, necessary for the earth to remain on its axis.
I then log into the vehicle-for-hire service on my phone and wait for someone to request a ride. Their name and destination will show up, and I hope for the ones that require me to go around downtown. I used to like driving near the skyscrapers on 45, their yellow lights fading in and out across my skin and dashboard as I passed them. It reminds me of a time when I was a citizen of the world.
And there it is: Madison. Female. 25-to-27-years-old. White. Short, blonde hair. White. From Downtown to Gulfcrest. Odd.
I put the keys in the ignition, turn my wrist until the car takes its first deep breath of the night, and drive. From there, I merge on the feeder to get onto the freeway, the connecting ramp closing in on 1-2-3. There it is. Every ramp has a shift in the consistency of the asphalt, when the old tar road meets the newer concrete freeway. When a tire drives over this connection, there’s a muffled clicking you can feel and hear that reverberates into the hollow space of the overpass, each time slightly different as it varies on how many homeless lie asleep, or how bad traffic is, or how sweltering thick the air is, carrying sound with the consistency of molasses.
Though Houston shifts and changes constantly, what doesn’t change is that everything is where it always has been: the poor here, the rich there, the brown people más allá, the white ones over yonder. Anything not belonging to those categories merely hides this paradigm. The same could be said of any city. The same could be said of America. The same could be said of the world. So, when Madison wants me to pick her up from somewhere downtown and probably take her home, I already know a few things about her: she has money to burn, and that she’s afraid of loneliness. A deadly combination. I should know. The heavy lights of the city splash on my skin, and it feels right.
I pull up to a bougie-ass restaurant where only appetizers and cocktails are served. There are four people outside, two of them holding someone in a short, blue dress up. Female. 23-to-25 years old. Long, black hair. Latina. It all makes sense now. Another young woman, white, approaches my car.
“Are you Madison?” I ask.
“Yeah, but the ride is for my friend here,” she says as the others dump that woman in my backseat. “She’s had a bit too much to drink.”
Usually, I’d object, but the fare is too good to pass up. Out of 23 rides needed in the area, this one is mine.
“What’s her name?”
“Thanks so much!” Madison says as she drunk-stomps back through the bar’s façade.
“Hey, you alright back there?” I ask.
No answer. That’s fine. I turn on the radio because too much silence allows for other things to intrude, for thoughts to go where they shouldn’t. I always try different stations every night so as to surprise my mind every so often. This time, it’s a classic rock station with a right-wing DJ at the helm. Listen:
“…those Democraps are ruining this country. I pray to God every day to make our country right again, strong again. Dang shame. Anyways, the count is now six years, 150 days, 12 hours, 26 minutes, since that village in Kenya is started missing its idiot. Now, here’s The Eagles with ‘Take it Easy.’”
“Hey, can you change this shit?” The young woman asks. “I don’t want to listen to this racist asshole. Or the fucking Eagles.”
I change the station. Listen:
“¡Aqui estamos en el Cloob Bandidos donde las mujeres entran gratis y los hombres pagan todo! ¡Ven y ponte a pedo, a hyperrrrr, a sexy-issimo con DJ Cabeza de Chocha!”
The broadcast sounds like it’s on location, the cumbia tribal music scratchy with the heavy bass and drunken dancers wooing as the DJ yells away from the mic, dale y dale, asi, asi…
“Where am I, by the way?” the girl in the backseat moans.
“You’re in a vehicle for hire. Taking you home.”
“No, I’m with my friends.” She starts to feel out her surroundings, the leather warping with her every move.
“Madison asked me to take you home. Sit still, and we’ll be there in no time.”
“Take me back to Madison. It’s her birthday, and she’s my BFF.”
“It’s probably better if you go home.”
She panics, reaching over and trying to force open the child-locked car door, hitting the window with her open palm.
“Look! Madison ordered a ride to take you home. It didn’t seem like they wanted you there, alright?”
Sometimes we have to save people from themselves. It happens. She lies back down. I drive for a while. It’s all going pretty smoothly, until we get into her subdivision. And shit, there it fucking is. A train. The arms of the crossing signal lower, and the bell screams. Fuck.
“Hey, the train’s coming. Know any way around?” I ask the young woman.
“Nope! We have to wait it out. Fucking Houston, huh?”
I turn up the radio.
“Aquí estamos en Cloob Bandidos con bebidas fuertes y mujeres pretty-issimas! ¿Verdad chicas? ¿Pues qué haces? ¡Ven a Cloo-cloo-cloob Bandidos-dos con DJ Cabeza-beza de Chocha-chocha-chocha!”
“I haven’t been to that one,” the girl in the backseat says.
“No? You like that kind of stuff?”
“Totes. I think once I get a chance to dance with him, things will change. I like him. Like a lot.”
I look in the rearview mirror and see her drawing designs in the air with the twinkling of her fingers, loops and lines as though conducting a spell.
“He like you back?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, idunno. Idunno.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I don’t mean it. It’s just something I’ve learned say.
“Yeah. Ok.” I can hear her shift to her side, now facing the leather cushions.
“¡Esta es una buenissimaaaaa fiesta!”
“It’s best to not think about what he’s doing right now,” I say. It’s true. I used to do it all the time with my ex-wife, and all I got was a few scars on my knuckles. But it’s too late. I can hear her start to heave, then whimper. If I don’t intervene, the whimpers will become full blown weeping, then coughs, then a decision has to be made. I should know.
“Listen to me,” I say. “What’s your name?”
The young woman struggles to sit up, squirming in her tight dress like a toppled penguin.
“Layla,” she says, running her hands through her hair.
“Velarill? Wait, you mean Villarreal?”
“Yeah, but that’s not how I say it.”
“Okay. Layla. So, tell me,” I begin, “when was the last time you were happy?”
“No, the other passenger.” Layla looks around.
“You’re funny,” she says.
“What’s the happiest day of my life?” she asks. “I’ll tell mine if you tell yours. Deal?”
“Sure,” I say. Hopefully, this train passes soon, and I’ll get there before she finishes.
“Ummmmm, ok. I guess it would have to be when I first met my father.”
“Met your father? Like, formally?”
“Yeah. I was raised by my grandma. When my dad got custody again, my grandma went to drop me off at his job at the end of his shift. I remember waiting there for him, so excited. The restaurant he worked at had this huge neon sign that was so bright that I can’t remember what it said. I saw this dark figure come out, and my grandma said it was him. I stepped out of the car and stood there, waiting for him to come closer. He was so tall, or maybe I was so little. But when he got closer, the huge light got smaller and smaller. Until he got close enough for me to hug him. It was like it was meant to happen that way, like he came out of heaven.” The train keeps going, its bellowing shaking the moon.
“Wow,” I say.
“Right? Yeah. It’s been pretty great ever since,” she says with runny makeup. “You?”
“Yeah you, fool. What’s the happiest day of your life?”
I pause because I’m making up a story. I can’t tell her the happiest day of my life, nothing even close to it. How about this: I’ll tell her the opposite of the worst day of my life. No, fool, the opposite of the worst day is not always the happiest day. In fact, the opposite of my worst day is what should’ve been the happiest day. While you only get one happiest day of your life, you get many should-have-beens. The imagination is one-half cruelty, one-half hope. The inhale, the exhale. I’m doing this because every person deserves that story they keep to themselves lest they tell every story they know. They won’t have anything new to give to the world. Then what good are you? The train seems infinite.
Here it goes:
“It was my, um, wedding day to my wife. Her name is, uh, Lisa, and we had been dating for, uh, five years, actually. Vanilla wedding cake, friends, family. All that stuff. Yeah. That’s pretty much it.”
“That’s it?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re lying. I know you are. You’re a bad liar. I can tell.”
“How do you figure that?” That story wasn’t a complete lie, but half of a lie is still a lie.
“You’ve spoken with certainty this whole time, until that story. You were making it up as you go. I can tell.”
She’s smarter than I thought. Either way, she can take it or leave it. It’s my car.
“Why do you care?” I ask.
“Because you asked me a question. I answered it truthfully, and you’re giving me bullshit. If you don’t want to talk to me, then fucking don’t. I hate liars.”
Layla then sits up and pulls out her phone. She’s right. I’m a liar. I can see why her friends are sending her home, but no one likes the truth. People send the truth away in bottles in the ocean, not to be found but to have hope in their situation. I don’t like being that person. Billboards and signs and people lie out there to get you to love them or give them money or vote for them. To lie is to celebrate them. I don’t want to be a liar. Not to someone who, in some other life, may have been my daughter.
“Lilia- I mean Layla, I’m sorry.”
She says nothing.
“Layla, did you hear me? I’m sorry.”
She continues to ignore me. Perhaps she is my daughter. Some religions believe that souls exit the body and inhabit another. Some believe everything is part of some divine plan. Others believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe in any of those. But the only thing I can do in this life is to hold my own soul accountable to myself. If not, then who am I? Perhaps telling the truth is the only way to make certain your soul doesn’t disappear.
“Layla, I’m going to tell you the truth. The happiest day of my life was the day my daughter was born.”
She remains silent.
“The happiest day of my life was every day with my daughter, really. That’s the truth.”
“The truth, sure. But not the Truth, capital T. I gave you a specific day and what happened. That was the deal. Happiest DAY of your life. Come on.”
“Damn. You’re right. Let’s see… Ok. Here it is. One day, I took my daughter to la pulga. You know what those are, right?”
“Anyways, I took her to la pulga, the one where I grew up going to as a kid. And we go, and I show her all my favorite spots, like to get licuados, the rides, look at all those knock-off toys. All that good shit. We end up buying a perrito. We were going to raise it together, like a daughter-father sorta project. You know?”
“Yeah. That’s cute.”
“I could see the light in her eyes become especially bright, you know, the kind of light you see when you give your child something that’ll last. Like a car or a blessing to marry someone or whatever. You know?”
“For sure. I didn’t think about it like that. From a dad’s perspective, I mean.”
“Y’all never do. It’s something you won’t know until you do it. Have a kid, you know?”
“What happened? You said it in a past-tense way. ‘Were going to raise it together’ you said. Future in the past tense, as in it was true but no longer.”
“Chingado. You an English major or some shit?”
“Sure. What happened to the puppy?”
“I don’t remember, to tell you the truth.”
“What?! Did it die or run away or something?”
“I told you. I don’t remember.”
That’s the truth. The dog may be with my ex-wife. I don’t know. I don’t know.
“Well, does your daughter know that the dog is missing?”
“No. She doesn’t.”
“When are you going to tell her? If that’s the happiest day of your life, that dog’s gotta be really important to you two. Is she off at college or…?”
“No. She’s not off at college.”
“Well… I think you should tell her. That’s a pretty important thing to not tell her. It was a promise y’all made!”
“You’re right. I wish I could tell her.”
“Why can’t you?”
“¡Vengan, vengan, vengan! ¡Y olviden sus chones!” DJ Cabeza de Chocha invites the world. I turn off the radio because here it comes. The Truth. Capital T.
“She’s dead, Layla. My daughter’s dead.” Layla doesn’t say anything. The pause is too long. I’d say something else, but the Truth is out. There’s nothing left to say. The train finishes passing, as though on cue. The arms raise. I drive. I look in the rearview mirror, and Layla looks out the window. There’s nothing to see, really. Just houses and lawns and fences shrouded in night. Maybe that’s everything.
I pull up to an apartment complex entrance, to where the GPS tells me.
“Here you are. Good luck with everything, Layla.” I mean it.
“Thank you. If I could give you four out of five stars, I would,” Layla says. Fair enough.
She then gets out of the car and out of my life. That’s the only Truth. People come and go. Some sooner than others. Some better than others. I complete some other rides, and I don’t talk to any of them. What’s the point? How many times must one repeat the Truth? I’m not sure, actually. I might need to say it more and more. Until it becomes everyone’s Truth, maybe. I stop taking riders. I get on the interstate to get home, the lights turning my skin the color of heaven.
I get off the interstate and that bump happens, notes to a song I can’t understand yet. Once you get deeper into the streets and coast along, a smorgasbord of lights stab your eyes. Houston’s built like a puzzle crammed together from different boxes, too far in to quit but not quite finished either. There could be a shanty burger joint in your vision one second, a Romanesque strip joint with columns and a billboard the next; a bright red tax office begging for your attention in a strip mall with a massage parlor obscured by tinted windows that patiently stands alongside a nail salon. A theater from the 50’s could now be a Mexican restaurant or a grocery store. A basketball stadium becomes a megachurch. We Houstonians don’t like to get bored so we’re animals of whim, cursed to always wander but blessed to love every second of it. This nature ingrains a forgetfulness in every Houstonian. We love to forget, but I can’t. That’s a blessing and a curse. It happens. To remember things in Houston is to become its enemy and its favorite child. I suppose that depends on the history you choose to remember.
I park in front of my place and start to clean out my car for tomorrow morning. I find a strand of hair. I hold it up to a fizzling streetlight. The strand of hair’s aura alternates between gold, brown, black, gold, and I squint so hard to try and see its real color that it hurts my head. I give up and let the strand of hair fall onto the street, before a breeze snatches it from my sight. I’m just standing there, alone, and there’s this whole city still breathing around me, sapping the air out of my lungs.