On the way to Nogales, Robin and I sang Patsy Cline songs because nothing good was on the radio. We didn’t like country music, except for vintage Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, and we had already rung the life out of “Ring of Fire.” Annie and I grew up with these songs playing on an enormous cabinet stereo while our parents played cards with the neighbors, iced tea or rum and Cokes sweating on paper coasters, and someone always with a cigarette.
Annie sat stoically in the back seat, without saying anything, like a Cigar Store Indian.
“I go out walkin’,” Robin and I sang, “after midnight.” Her allergies were raging, so “midnight” sounded more like “bidnight.” Occasionally she tried blowing her nose.
“You hear that?” Robin stared accusingly into an empty tissue. “Nothing. I got nothing. It’s like cement in there.”
We were going to Mexico to buy drugs. Not the illegal kind, but antibiotics and powerful antihistamines we couldn’t get in Arizona without a prescription. The Nogales pharmacies were cracking down on selling drugs to Americans, but it was still possible to get amoxicillin and industrial-strength antihistamines. None of us had health insurance, so without Nogales I would have to pay some walk-in clinic a hundred dollars to tell me I had strep throat or a urinary tract infection and another thirty for the pills. Why pay a doctor to tell me something I already knew? The prescription pad is what you paid for, and poverty is the mother of invention.
The car zoomed past twiggy bundles of broom grass, blooming in scruffy bunches along the highway, shedding spores. Sunlight poured in the windows like liquid gold, and my legs were hot even with the air conditioning. But it was only June, the really hot weather hadn’t arrived.
“Let’s do ‘Crazy’,” Robin said. “That’s my favorite.” We both had thready, off-key voices, but we liked to sing. Robin swiped at her nose between verses, wadding up the used tissues in the pockets of her overall jeans. We made up lyrics for the parts we didn’t know. Sometimes Annie volunteered a line, spoken never sung, that we forgot.
On the American side of the border, we parked behind Burger King where, for four dollars, men would watch people’s cars so they weren’t stolen or towed. We parked and walked three hundred yards or so to the border, passing through a revolving iron gate, jostled by other American tourists and Mexicans coming back from fast food lunches.
Two steps into Mexico and even the air felt different. Dry, sooty, and heavy with grease from the vendors selling fry bread and popcorn. On the hillsides surrounding the town were dozens of little shacks without running water or electricity. Downtown, the narrow Nogales streets were lined with hawkers outside tiny makeshift shops selling cheap trinkets, tequila, and imitation vanilla.
“Cheap today, almost free,” said a stocky brown man offering scratchy blankets. Others greet us and try waving us in, as though we were old friends.
Inside the pharmacia a woman wearing a white coat consented to sell us what we came for. I couldn’t help asking for Valium, too-I heard they sold it in Tijuana. Annie shrank behind the packages of black hair dye as the clerk shook her head. She hated it when I made a small wave, even just to ask for something not on the menu. We were raised to fit in, not to make a fuss.
The hot streets were not especially busy. We heard business was trailing, now that they were cracking down on prescriptions and looking for underage American kids having fun. We climbed the stairs to an open air bar one floor up, where we each ordered a shot of tequila and a Coke. When the drinks came, along with hot oily chips and salsa, Robin ripped into her prescription decongestants and swallowed two pills.
“Warning, she said. “Sometimes these make me a little loopy.”
“Great,” Annie replied. “Entertainment for the trip home.”
The waiters clustered in a corner bursting with giant paper flowers, talking about us in Spanish. I folded my one-ply napkin into squares. In Nogales, Coke came in an ice-cold glass bottle with a straw. I would like to drink a Coke this way every day of my life, with the sun baking the earth and my shirt sticking to my skin.
“I don’t want to go back to Vermont,” I said. “I really, really don’t.”
I thought about our hike through Pima Canyon the previous weekend. We were half way down when the rain fell and we walked through a rainbow. And all the nights around the kivain Annie and Robin’s little yard, with its orange trees and the girls lighting their cigarettes off a red hot branding iron and people dropping by.
“It’s not like you’re signing a death warrant,” Robin said. “You can always come back.”
“Nothing would be the same,” I lamented. “You have certain periods in your life that are very good, and you should have been happier, but by the time you realize that, they’re gone, and you can’t go back and relive them and be grateful. You want to, but that happy time is over, there’s no going back, and nothing will ever be the same.”
“You might try being a little more positive,” Annie suggested.
“Why? I know what will happen. I’ll get that PR job back east, go back to being a vapid little suck-up, shrivel up into a bitter old recluse and wait to die.”
“But you haven’t seemed very happy here,” Robin said. “At least, as long as I’ve known you.”
“True,” I admitted. “But I’m less unhappy and with lots of interesting things happening. Think of the guys alone. Remember the one who wanted me to be his mean mommy? Then I tried to break up with him, and he wouldn’t let me, and a week later he broke up with me? Or the guy with a missing hand? I once went nine months in Vermont without a date.”
“I find that hard to believe.” Robin offered a tortilla chip to Annie, but she wouldn’t eat in Mexico since some overripe guacamole had made her sick.
“Anyway,” I raised my shot glass. “I still know how to have a good time.”
“Absolutely,” Annie and Robin said, and we drank.
Later we wandered through vendors’ stalls, occasionally stopping to examine a piece of cobalt glass or a terra cotta sunburst. We had to buy something to show the border guards, instead of the pills. Robin appeared slightly woozy, walking several steps behind us and yelling “Hey, white girls,” when we got too far ahead.
“Are you crazy?” I said, letting her catch up. “Don’t say that.” Her pale arms had freckled in the sun. Because Robin was my little sister’s girlfriend, I felt I could boss her around. Annie didn’t like Nogales, but she came along because Robin wanted to go. When Annie finally came out and got a girlfriend, I gained a friend. But I was losing both of them, soon nearly three thousand miles would keep us apart.
“Miss, excuse me, but you are very beautiful,” a young storekeeper told me as we passed. He wasn’t bad looking, just short. I smiled, and Annie snorted behind me.
“They say that to everyone, you know,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, adding unconvincingly, “I realize that.”
We bought a big bottle of Cuervo Gold, two pottery mugs and a margarita glass to replace one of mine that had broken, offering them up to the border guards to show we were legitimate shoppers. We had already put the illegal drugs into empty aspirin bottles in my purse and ditched the packages. After we cleared the border and stepped back into America, we stopped and had fries at the Nogales, Arizona, Burger King.
“Wait,” I said as we prepared to dump our trays. “Is there water in the car? I might need to take a pill.”
“We’re going to etch that on your tombstone,” Annie said. “You and your pills.”
“I’m just talking about aspirin, officer,” I told her. “And unlike a certain person, I don’t carry a flask in my jacket.”
“Okay,” Annie said. “I fold.”
We hit the road. Robin had to sit in front to prevent getting carsick. On the way home her slow, steady breathing suggested she was deep into an antihistamine and tequila fueled nap. After a few nips of butterscotch brandy from her pocket flask, Annie’s head leaned against the back seat, her eyes closed.
I swallowed two Excedrin with the last of my tepid milkshake, not to cure a headache but for the caffeine that would keep me alert. There were few towns and no streetlights on the long road from Nogales to Tucson, but enough milky moonlight to light the way through miles and miles of open space. I unrolled my window, inhaling dust and the smoky aroma of mesquite. And then: a rare moment of perfect happiness, a moment when everything was perfect and blessed, a moment to be alive and awake. Not anticipating, not holding on. I kept driving. Rootless, untethered, guided by the desert moon. How could I not have known this was happiness, and how long it would be until it came again?