Foreign Affair

Boots’s Pick
Neil Weilheimer


Despite a sore back and calloused hands, Diego Montalvo picked up his shovel, broke through the first layer of dirt and began digging a six-foot-deep hole.

Carving out graves was indeed hard and bleak work. But it was better than the time he picked bell peppers in California. And it was far less noxious than when he cleaned stalls on a horse farm.

Nobody bothered Diego here in Arizona, except for the occasional belch from an equally strong Korean man, who chipped away at the earth alongside. For hours, the two hardly spoke. When they did, it was mostly to gesture the boss was nearing or that it was time for a water break.

“Must be in nineties today,” said the Korean. “Go slow.”

As their shovels and pick-axes removed layers of stone, the men’s grunts grew louder. Diego rarely questioned, at least publicly, why Americans weren’t more receptive to the simplicity of cremation. Nor did he waste time thinking about why six feet was the socially accepted depth to bury someone.

The job paid well enough, certainly more than he earned building homes in his native Mexico, where his wife and two daughters lived.

By five in the afternoon, the rectangular hole was ready. The two men sat in the ditch with their backs against the cool, freshly hollowed dirt, opened their coolers and each guzzled two Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

“Look like you have heavy thoughts,” the Korean worker said.

Diego stared at the sky, unresponsive to his partner’s comments.

“You need girl. That help with your troubles, my friend.”

Diego smiled. He thought of his family back home and how he’d sing “Duérmete Mi Niño” to his daughters before bed. Sweet dreams, my baby. Their eyelids trying to beat back sleep but eventually succumbing. He longed to hold his wife, Magdalena, to smell her pillowcase after a night’s rest and to eat her hand-pressed corn tortillas, with refried pinto beans and moist orange rice on the side.

It’s been more than two years since he last saw them. But Diego feels closer to home every Friday, when he sends most of the week’s pay across the border. Thanks to the money, Magdalena was able to take their daughters to the doctor’s office for the first time. Soon, they’ll rent a larger place to live.

“I know nice Thai girl. Here, call her,” said the Korean man, handing over a business card that featured an illustration of two naked women.

To appease him, Diego took it and tossed the card in his cooler.

Later that night, Diego lay on his back on the torn couch, smoking, with his big brown toe poking through an old sock. The apartment, a converted skid row motel across from some defunct establishments, was small, even though he lived alone. A bed, leaky toilet, mini-fridge and a portable grill also furnished the room. The walls were tinted lemon curry, much like a newspaper that’s sat around too long.

Diego sent one smoke ring after another toward the ceiling, thinking about how he told Magdalena he’d quit months ago.

“I’m so proud of you, Diego,” she said over the phone.

“It’s best, for me, you, the girls.”

“We miss you. When will you becoming home?”

“Not for a few more months. There’s lots of work here in the summer. Many old gringos drop dead from the heat, you know.”

“So when, Diego?”

“I’m sending more money this week,” he responded, trying to both appease her and change the conversation.

“The girls keep asking for you. They’re getting big.”

“I want to bring you here,”he said.

Diego had tried to convince her before, but it always led to a fight. Even with the promise of more money in the U.S., Magdalena didn’t want to leave Mexico, especially Torreon. She loved the city and its simplicity. It’s where she grew up, and her parents, brothers and cousins all still resided. Magdalena didn’t mind her job, despite having to clean the bathrooms and change the beds at the tourist-friendly Fiesta Inn. And she never had to look far to feel comforted by the extended, welcoming arms of the Cristo de las Noas.

“Stop, Diego. You’ve always wanted more. But home is here.”

“Kiss Rosa and Frida for me. I need to sleep now.”

As Diego replayed that conversation, he lit another cigarette. He took a quick, powerful drag and let out a slow exhale. Soon Diego’s stomach began to hurt, from loneliness and hunger. He opened the mini-fridge. It was empty save for two beers, a half-eaten Snickers bar and a grapefruit he’d planned to have for breakfast the next day.

Diego grabbed a beer, slammed the little door and headed to his cooler to see if anything was left from lunch. Inside he found a few pieces of sandwich crust and the business card the Korean man had given him earlier. Diego looked at it closer, rubbing his thumb over the hot-pink raised lettering.

Full-body treatment. Erotic massages. Private parlors. Asian angels galore and more. In calls and outcalls available.

With each swig of beer, Diego’s need for companionship seared deeper and the possibilities of the card came alive. He called.

Just after 11:00 p.m., he sat in a waiting room chair, with two other strangers nearby. None of them made eye contact. Diego was nervous, though not nearly as tense as when he trekked across the U.S. border, navigating a desolate stretch of Arizona’s southern desert with eleven other men, one of whom was a thickly built man with scruffy facial hair, a tattooed neck and no front teeth.

Now a small woman entered, and in broken English asked Diego if he was ready.

After forking over $30 for a thirty-minute massage, Diego was ushered through a doorway veiled only by hanging strands of beads. The room was mirrored all around. In the center, milk crates elevated a mattress. On the far wall, a small but clearly visible sign stated that solicitation of sex is punishable by law and anyone asking for favors of the kind will be ejected from the building.

Overhead, some type of music from the Orient played. For some reason, Diego started to think of rickshaws, dragons and chopsticks.

“Take clothes off,” said the woman. “Somebody with you very soon.”

Diego disrobed slowly and placed his clothes and muddied cowboy boots in the corner. He sat on the bed and stared at himself in the mirror. He was much thinner than he remembered, though still muscled, and he had deep pouches under his eyes. Diego thought he saw a patch of gray hair. As he was about to take a closer look, a slight Thai woman entered.

She smiled and nodded at him. The woman unrolled a large bath towel, spreading it over the bed. Diego removed his underwear, the last remaining piece of clothing, and lay on his stomach. The woman began to knead and press, first across Diego’s shoulders and back, then down his legs.

“Flip,” she said.

After Diego turned over, the woman gently pushed the towel aside. He was completely exposed.

“Should I rub everywhere?”

Diego nodded.

She picked up a bottle of massage oil, squeezed and carefully wrote the number fifty on his chest. Diego knew what that meant. No words needed to be spoken. He nodded again.

When they were finished, Diego reached into his jeans and handed her the fifty dollars.

“I’m Tasanee.”

“Diego.”

She offered him water in a wax-coated paper cup.

“Thank you.”

“You haven’t been here before.”

“First time.”

Tasanee had seen many men like Diego, all with looks of victimhood and vulnerability, like they were passive participants in their own existences. Most of them came to her because they were either drunk or just trying to work through their loneliness. “Where you from?”she asked.

“Mexico.”

“There’s family there, right?”

“Wife and two kids.”

“It’s hard to be away. I can…”

Diego interrupted. He didn’t want to talk about his family. Instead, he asked about her. “And you?”

“From Phuket. You know, in Thailand. I left after the tsunami took everything that mattered. I lost my parents, two brothers, a husband and son.”

“Sorry.”

The woman who ushered Diego back to the room peeked in. “New gentleman here for you.”

Diego smiled at Tasanee and left.

For the next several days at work, Diego replayed his brief time with Tasanee, the way she glided her hands over the length of his body. She was much younger-looking than his wife, with shinier hair, more defined cheekbones and a jutting chin. He guessed that she was about 28 years old, though she was really closer to 40. On the outside she appeared joyous and flirtatious. It was the very thing Diego craved.

Now, though, he couldn’t have such thoughts. On this particular day, Diego and his partner, the Korean, have to dig four ditches, one of which has to be large enough for the body of a 400-pound woman. The men dug at a furious pace, removing one shovelful of freshly tilled soil after another.

“Special coffin coming,” the Korean had said. “Dig wide, not down.”

Diego understood. The heavier caskets would often sink themselves over time. At first, he laughed. But then he began to wonder how she died. Was it because of her weight? Was she alone, without anyone to confide in or be intimate with? Does she have family that will attend the burial? How long had she been dead before someone found her? Diego imagined she had housecats, furry unkempt ones that probably had urinated on the bedroom carpet by now.

Nobody came to the funeral. It was just Diego, the Korean man and a bright noon sun that left them both squinting.

Lowering her into the grave had tested them. The coffin was heavy. And the casket was so wide they had to do it manually, straining their lower backs and hamstrings. They couldn’t use planks to lower her because they were prone to snapping. It would have to be by rope. Just before they had the woman all the way in, the Korean man felt himself being tugged forward.

“Can’t hold her no more,” he said.

The casket plunged into the hole, landing with a dampened thud. At least she didn’t flip, Diego thought, and have to be buried face down. They shoveled dirt back in. Eventually sod, along with the standard cemetery-issued tombstone that etched in name and lifespan, would cover the plot.

Diego suddenly wanted to see Tasanee again.

After work, he called the number on the business card with the two naked women on it, and asked for Tasanee.

“Do you want to come in for massage?” the woman on the other end of the phone asked.

“No. Just to talk with her.”

“What’s this for?”

“I came in a few nights ago.”

“Hold on.”

Several minutes passed before anyone returned to the line, which had been looping a batch of local ads.

“Hello?”

“Tasanee?”

“Yes.”

“This is Diego…”

“Okay.”

He paused. Clearly she hadn’t remembered him. “From the other night.”

“Is this for an appointment?”

“No. You started to tell me about your family. I wanted to see you again. To talk more.”

Tasanee recalled his face and the cheerless eyes. “Come by the parlor at 10. I’m done early tonight.”

As he waited for the hours to pass, Diego thought about bringing some flowers or candy, but wasn’t sure if she’d take that to mean it was a date. Instead, he ironed the one dress shirt he owned, clipped his fingernails and shaved.

Diego arrived early, occasionally strolling past the storefront’s entrance. To calm his nerves, he sat on the curb and looked across the street. A 99-cent shop, laundromat and two corner liquor stores book-ended the block. An airplane rumbled overhead. Diego leaned back to watch it.

“Going somewhere new or returning home?”

Diego turned to the voice coming from behind him and grinned. “Thanks for seeing me again,” he said.

“Have you eaten?”

“Not since lunch.”

“I can fix you something, if you like,” Tasanee said. “I live a few blocks from here.”

The air was hot and still. As they walked, Diego started to reach for her hand, quickly pulled back and then reached again. But he had missed because she was a stride ahead. Tasanee had seen the gesture, though, and put her arm around his elbow, nuzzling herself close.

Diego didn’t mutter a word. He was unsure of himself and felt much like a teenage boy who had already fallen behind his peers in knowing how to talk to girls.

“Do you like it here?” asked Tasanee.

“Very much. I can work. I can make things happen, my family can live better. Here, I can hope, there’s always promise,” said Diego. “But I worry a lot, about being caught and losing it all.”

Tasanee nodded, staring ahead with a blank expression on her face. “Let’s go inside,” she said.

The apartment she rented for $350 a month was on the fourth floor of a five-story walkup. The hallway smelled, thought Diego, but not in a bad way. The air had traces of meals cooked the night before and from the landlady doing laundry in the basement. Tasanee’s home was small but much nicer than Diego’s. Doilies hung off end-tables. Ancient-looking, expertly-carved wood trays and elegant vases accented the living room. The bedroom featured handmade paper lanterns with bright rainbow patterns. And there were hints of money: a flat-screen television, ceiling fan, and well-stocked refrigerator.

“Relax. Put your feet up.”

In the kitchen, Tasanee prepared a side-salad, slicing up cucumbers and shallots. She chopped cloves of garlic, fresh hot chili peppers and coriander roots, and worked them into a thick, smooth paste. Then she minced and fried chicken in a wok. A soft but sharp aroma soon made the place feel warm.

For the first time in months, Diego felt connected to something. “You have a lot here,”he said.

“I have mostly memories. Some very good, like how my family and I used to celebrate Songkran every April. We’d start the new year with fireworks, drums and dance. And eat so much. It was beautiful. Others disturb me. When I sleep, I often see swirling waters and hear people screaming. The other night I saw an innocent, wide-eyed girl clinging to a floating piece of wood, drifting, looking for her mom and dad, wondering why they weren’t helping.”

Diego just listened. When she finished, he hugged her. Tasanee gripped him tight, pressing her head against his chest. Diego could hear muffled sniffles and then saw tears coursing down her cheeks.

“Where’s your booze?”

She pointed to the refrigerator. He found all the right ingredients: tomato juice, hot sauce, lime wedges, and a bottle of Worcestershire. Diego grabbed two mugs, rimmed them with salt, and mixed everything together. Then he poured in cold beer and handed Tasanee a full glass.

“To better times,” he said.

She raised her glass and responded, “And to new friends.”

The table was set. Cucumber salad, bowls overflowing with spicy, fried chicken and rice. Diego was scooping up forkfuls of the dinner, as if he hadn’t had a good meal in years. After each bite, he drank.

“There’s plenty, Diego,” Tasanee said. “I’m glad you like it.”

“My tongue is tingling, like it’s dancing in my mouth.”

“Let me see.”

He stuck out his tongue and wiggled it side to side. He was at once taunting and flirting.

“That your tongue tango?”

The alcohol was setting in and they were laughing with ease.

“Tango’s not my people,” Diego said. “I’ll show you how to really dance.”

Diego turned on the stereo, finding a local station known for playing a mix of Mexican music. Thumping his hand against his thigh, Diego smiled. “Listen,” he said, as the volume became louder.

A rollicking, up-tempo norteña sound boomed out. Accordions, guitars and saxophones powered the song, which had filled the room. The lyrics were poetic and angry, about longing and loss.

“Los Tigres del Norte,” Diego said as he reached for Tasanee. “Do you feel the emotion, the struggles? They’re speaking right to me.”

Tasanee put down her glass and joined Diego. They started to bounce to the beat, two-stepping around the room. At first, slow. Then, as the music quickened, fast. They tried to keep up with the wheezing accordions, but only became clumsy, bumping into things. They didn’t seem to care.

When the dance ended, Tasanee jumped into Diego’s arms, holding her like a bride on her wedding night—an image that wasn’t lost on either of them. Diego carried Tasanee into the bedroom, which had a Buddha statue prominently displayed on a nightstand in the corner. He kissed Tasanee gently on the forehead, the nose and then hard on the lips, which were full and wet with beer. Soon they were on the bed, naked and fucking.

After, they lay side by side, with only the points of their elbows touching. Tasanee turned away from him on her side. “Hold me, Diego. Hold me till morning.”

Her breathing slowed to a steady, easy pace, and soon she was asleep. Diego watched her, tracing the silhouette of her body with his eyes. After a while, he moved away and for the first time that night, he thought about his family in Mexico. He considered how long they could continue to live apart and whether his arduous journey had been worth it.

To get here, Diego traveled more than 400 miles before slipping into the U.S. in the middle of the night. He had been one of the few to make it, crossing the open desert with just a jug or two of water, a few cans of food and cloves of garlic—he’d heard that that would help repel snakes. At pone point, Diego wanted to give up, wishing the border patrol would catch him and send him back home. His tongue had become so dry it had turned a chalky white, and he even had hallucinations of mermaids splashing about in fountains. Diego’s legs were rubbery, with the knees often buckling—and they had been bloodied from walking into cactus spines at night, when the bulk of the scrambling was done. To make matters worse, one of Diego’s brothers, who had also hoped to escape poverty, dropped dead in the desert. Saddened, but too exhausted to cope, Diego could only bring himself to take his brother’s food and the little money he had taped to the underside of his testicles, supposedly the best place to protect it. There wasn’t time for a proper burial. It would be several days before he was safely inside the U.S. and able to call home, informing the family that his 23-year-old brother died and that he had been lucky enough to make it.

Now comfortably in bed, Diego started to shiver. The thought of not knowing what had happened to his brother’s body haunted him. For the next hour Diego tried to fall asleep, but he couldn’t shake the image. Diego went into the living room. He opened a window and stared out at the purple-hued sky and the dust particles swirling around the street lamps. The night was silent outside and life was still. Diego felt like he was in two places, two homes. No matter where he was, somewhere else would be better, he thought. He started to sing, somewhat muffled, the words to his daughters’ favorite lullaby: “Go to sleep my baby. Go to sleep my sunshine. You’re forever in this heart of mine.”

When Tasanee woke up in the morning, she saw that Diego wasn’t there and he hadn’t slept next to her all night. She called for him. With no answer, she shouted his name again, but with more urgency, if not fear, in her voice.

“I’m here, Tasanee,” he said from the other room. “I’m right here.”
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Neil Weilheimer is a journalist in New York City. He’s reported on business trends and some of the most colorful boardroom executives for more than a decade. Away from the newsroom, Weilheimer spends most nights reading better writers or watching reality TV. He is currently working on a book of short stories. E-mail: Nweilheimer[at]aol.com.

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