“Surroundings” by Bree Lamb
You will rent a slipshod house on Farm and Market Road 2812, one with no hot water, no A/C, no landlord who will give a rat’s ass. Not about the rats, nor about the cockroaches that will run across your chest—naked (no A/C)—waking you from sweat-drenched slumber, since it will also be ninety degrees at night.
You will take pride in the indigence of these domestic details, as you will in the laundry that is hanging from the line, Woolite-washed in the kitchen sink. Also the fraying curtains that you will cut and sew out of Mexican blankets from the border-town market stand, and the FIV-infected cat you will take in, eye so swollen that you will at first believe it has only one. And the punch-hole in the wall between the kitchen and the bedroom—if someone were to stay over (no one will stay over), they could watch you making bean-and-egg taquitos while they lounged leisurely on the sleeping bag you have spread across the floor, since you will have no bed.
Believe me. You will scoff at others who will live in iron-fenced compounds with sliding automatic gates, paying extra for heated pools (why heated, when the temperature is ninety at night?), being tempted by the unadventurous vices of ice-cold A/C, DSL, Chinese take-out. You will be having an authentic experience, which must necessarily involve leaky roofs during hurricane season.
Meals will involve tortillas. Beans also, de preferencia. Cheese from a package with a Spanish name scrawled across it in Mexican-flag colors. Oranges, grapefruits, and lemons from a single tree in the backyard, which by some miracle produces all three, on different branches. As for the prickly pears, sprouting like light bulbs from the nopal cactus next to the citrus tree, you will learn to like them, in spite of the seeds like ball bearings clogging up each bite.
No te preocupes. The heat will make lime popsicles all the more refreshing. The cold showers will make you wake up faster. The dial-up Internet will make you more purposeful in your communication with the ones you love, or are trying to.
You will leave the door unlocked because you will believe people are basically good. Also in the hopes that someone will someday come in.
You will teach in a gleaming Title I fortress of glass and steel, set down as if by a wayward tornado (or was it a hurricane?) in a dirt field, at the end of a dead-end dirt road, smack dab in the middle of the dustiest place on earth. The highest hill will be the expressway overpass over FM 2812, a million dollars of Texas superfluity, since there will be no traffic.
At 6:15 a.m. on the first day, the hallways will be filled with hundreds (thousands?) of wayward frogs, having squeezed under the inch-high, contractor-error gap between the front doors and the newly tiled floor. Grabbing a shovel and a bucket along with the blue-shirted janitors, you will feel a tingle of pleasure that you have so soon reached Exodus-level epicness. You will feel a similar sensation upon the discovery of the rattlesnake in the cafeteria, the field-mouse nest in your classroom, the burglar who poses as a Coca-Cola delivery driver and holds up the teachers’ lounge at gunpoint.
When the rain begins at the tail end of hurricane season, you will drive your rickety Ford Escort through water sloshing over the door panels into your lap. Mrs. Elizondo, the janitor, will send you home (didn’t you listen to the radio?), wearing thigh-high yellow galoshes. Grown accustomed to fifteen years of drought, the earth will have forgotten how to receive the gift of moisture. You will watch the janitor wade off through a lake whose superficies extend farther than the eye can see.
At home, you will curl up on the floor for four days until the water recedes, during which time you will read a dog-eared copy of My Antonia twice and speak to no one, since the phone lines will be down a week. O you will be a pioneer!
Back at school, your students, whom you will love more than you thought yourself capable of loving anything, will plunge their hands into the water, watching them reemerge oozing with mud and tadpoles pulsating with life. You will smile inwardly, because they will be normal kids in a world that is not normal.
The lake will dry up. Left will be thousands upon thousands (millions?) of tadpole carcasses, withering in mass graves under the extravagantly hot post-hurricane sun.
Try though you may, you will be called gringo. Also güero, jefe, maestro, boss, chief, and sir (and “miss,” since you will be one of only three male teachers, which takes a while to get used to).
You would, of course, prefer something else. Even vato, cabrón, güey, a derogatory term that everyone seems to call everyone else, and somehow feels friendly. Pinche cabrón, you’d take that. Still, you will learn that being called gringo to your face is better than being called gringo to your back. Güero will be even better, especially when it emits from the lips of Mrs. Elizondo, on days (in time, it will be almost every day) when she spends extra-long cleaning your room after school. Though you won’t be sure what the word actually connotes, you will like the way that the lines around the janitor’s eyes crinkle when she says it. When she is feeling particularly tender, you might get a m’hijo, her own son locked away in the state prison whose halogenous halo is visible from your trailer at night.
On parent-teacher night, your eyes will train on the barefoot child wearing only a diaper, tracing figure eights at the center of the circle of child-sized desks, as you discover the paucity of your linguistic abilities. And yet you will be told, over and over, that the Spanish you half-learned in college is better than the Spanish everyone else has spoken their entire lives.
Go ahead, if you must (and you must!), explain that thing you understood once, the one about language as a value-neutral set of symbols, the essential purpose of which is to facilitate communication and not to correspond to some pre-subscribed set of rules. Cite your Foucault, and see how far that gets you. Cite your Anzaldúa, and behold the blank looks. Sí, her grave is a five-minute drive from the spot where you are standing, babbling about language as dynamic and generative, but don’t forget that she was a lesbian, not to mention a Chicana.
You will speak proper Spanish.
On long walks on Saturday afternoons, you will pass field after field of wild sunflowers, sun-bleached plywood signs advertising half-acre partitions of wasteland, zero enganche. You will marvel at the courage, the resourcefulness, and the overarching folly of the men and women who will, in time, populate these vast expanses of nothing with cinder-block houses, built a wall here, a window there, as the money allows, living in the meantime in fifth-hand Winnebago trailers, rooms missing half a wall or a roof, rotted-out Chrysler Town & Country vans.
You will buy tacos al carbón and watermelon raspas from roadside stands, eat giant ears of elote with mayonnaise, limón, and chile, wave to families sitting on fold-up plastic chairs emblazoned with beer logos, drinking beers of the same brand with loud norteño music blaring from sub-woofing car speakers worth more than the car itself. You will be stared at obscurely by children climbing barefoot and shirtless on rusted-out carcasses of washing machines and glory-day Pontiacs. Nearly every car that passes you will honk. Every fourth one will slow down to offer you a ride, which you will politely decline, since you will not be that adventurous. Another fourth will shout things you won’t understand, or wish you couldn’t.
You will find company in the scurrying roadrunners and the scissor-tailed flycatchers dive-bombing from telephone wires, the herds of cabritos surviving off of the leftovers of the leftovers of the scorched scrub grass, the untethered dogs that rabidly chase you a whole country mile.
Once, you will accept a scribbled dinner invitation delivered by a girl who almost never speaks in your class. You will drive farther and farther in the direction of nowhere until you arrive at an immense stand of palms. A pock-marked driveway will lead you through dense, jungle-like foliage until you come to the student’s house. You will be amazed by the Escher-esque assemblage of oddly angled skylights, stairways that lead to rooms that haven’t even been built yet. It will call to mind a tripped-out Mars-colony biosphere, the exposed insulation, plastic sheeting, and unfinished concrete concealed by tangles of vines, orchids, and octopus-like bromeliads, beautiful and vaguely carnivorous, casting exquisite patterns of light and blackness onto the faces of your hosts.
You will talk about organic gardening and educational inequity, tour the Japanese pagoda the father has built out of homegrown bamboo for his morning meditations, be checkmated in five minutes or less by your student’s kid brother. On the drive back home, you will feel uncertain about whether this oasis was some kind of brokered truce between the world you have left behind and the one you are going to live in, or else just another heat-stroked scrub-brush mirage.
Hallway discussions overheard about chichis/pubes/mota/porno will cease to shock you. The fourteen-year-old fourth-grader who did not attend school for three years and is five-foot-nine and having her period will cease to shock you. The second-grader who will threaten, with alarming specificity, to blow the brains out of the bus driver will cease to shock you, as will his sister, in your class, whose eye has been poked out with a pencil, leaving only a gelatinous, grayish bulb. You will not be shocked either when, after a home visit, the whole crew up and leaves for Houston in the dead of night. You will be reminded of something important that you knew once but have long since forgotten, just like the rest of the fourth-grade curriculum, such as the details of plate tectonics, or the definition of escarpment: children are cruel. Not only that, but their audacity is literary. They will dare to say what adults may think, but would never say out loud: why do you look so tired this morning? Why can’t you get the class to be quiet? Why does Ferny act that way? What are you doing here, anyway?
You will resist the consequences posted on the rainbow-colored chart at the front of your room, because you and everyone else know that moving to black is a euphemism for getting your ass paddled in the principal’s office. When it finally comes to that, you will feel an involuntary rush of satisfaction, at least until Ferny comes back and proclaims, blatantly unrepentant, that he has been very bad.
On this day, like many others, Mrs. Elizondo will find you after school sitting at your desk with your head in your hands. She will attempt to comfort you by talking bad about the güercos, tell you for the umpteenth time that you’re the best teacher in the school. She will know this because your classroom is always the cleanest, the janitor’s fail-proof test of good teaching.
Don’t tell her that you spend a half hour before she gets there on your hands and knees, scraping gum off of the inside of desks with your fingernails. Just to hear her say it.
In some Kurtzian recess of your heart, you will know what is going to happen. You will anticipate, in general terms if not in the aching specificity of the details, the day when Alfredo with the finger-length scar on the side of his head will stand up on top of his desk and shout badass at the top of his lungs for no apparent reason, when slick-haired José Miguel with the designer polos will shove stick-figure Evelyn with the genetic condition head-first into the potted plant, when the unlikely pair of goody two-shoes Priscilla and premature-puberty Jennifer will hide under your desk and refuse to come out for P.E. until you promise to “fix” the class. You will anticipate the day that you will break down, during a spelling test when everyone is talking at once, telling your students, in the desperate hope that a flourish of honesty might grant you a mulligan, some days I don’t even want to be your teacher, and, soon thereafter, the day you will call in sick to work and lay on the sleeping bag for twenty-six hours straight without moving.
You will remember your short-lived teenage babysitting career, the children of your mother’s famous English professor chasing each other around the house with cleaver knives (you never told anyone), and you will reach the conclusion that all this was, after all, inevitable, lacking as you do a certain gravitas, or attention to detail, or you-better-not-cross-me-or-else look, or whatever it is that good teachers seem to be born with. You will take refuge in this unavoidability on the day before Christmas break, just after the students have descended like wild jackals on the presents provided in black garbage bags by the school board—wind-up motorcycles for the boys, Barbie knock-offs for the girls—when you will stand in front of the classroom and tell the students that you are not coming back.
The wail that will go up from the back of the classroom, you will know without having to look belongs to fatherless Edna, whose mother has been staying for the first hour of class every day, arriving late to her job as a gas station attendant in a futile attempt to drill-sergeant the kids back in line. The boy sitting slumped in a corner will be Juan, the Jehovah’s Witness prodigy who aces every exam but refuses to participate in any class activity, instead sitting in the corner and reading books left over from your own childhood. You will be powerless to do anything as he continues to sit there, his body gone completely slack, until his mother and the principal come to drag him out, one at each elbow. You will understand then that love is the most powerful thing in the world, but also that this power extends to destruction as well as to healing, and good intentions may only multiply the damage.
Shortly thereafter, you will be evicted from your house—in a burst of irony, your absentee landlord will turn it into a daycare. You will retreat to a cookie-cutter fourplex apartment, tucked innocuously behind Luby’s Cafeteria. You will acquire a bed, an electric coffee maker, a roommate with whom to strum guitars and watch Monday Night Football. You will acknowledge, reluctantly, that this change is for the better.
Follow the printed MapQuest directions sitting crinkled on your lap. Take the FM 2812 exit at Love’s Truck Stop, and drive due east on the straightest road imaginable. Just past Martinez’s Convenience Store and Taquería, pull your car into the gravel arc of the driveway for the first time. Try not to think about the future.
It will be late evening in August; the boxes will wait until tomorrow. Go ahead, sit on the west-facing steps. Let your gaze migrate past the unvarying fields of sunflowers, to the infinite horizon line. See the sky, bigger than anything you have known before, the palette of the sunset positively Van Gogh in its intensity and its fervor. Some day you will remember being told that this is on account of the ubiquitous dust, each tiny particle bending the waning wavelengths of the sunlight into a red as deep and violent as blood. But no matter. Take a deep breath. Feel the hotness and the dust rush down your trachea. Trace the path through your lungs, all the way down to the delicate balloon endings of the alveoli. With each inhalation, allow yourself to be filled with over-satisfaction. With each exhalation, let go of the rightful fear waiting within.
There will be days when you will think, I could live like this forever. There will be days when you will think, I can no longer bear to live. There will be days when the two thoughts will coincide, in moments of ecstasy and despair, the acute awareness of the darkness to come only heightening your sense of being deeply, terrifyingly, desperately alive.