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Under the shade of a fig tree, Ramona unbuttoned her green knitted sweater, pushing its large buttons through their ojales with one hand, while searching her backpack for the black top she had hidden there. When she found it, she tossed both her sueter and mochila on the ground and pulled over her narrow shoulders the white polo-shirt she was wearing and that Abuelita had neatly pressed that morning. Underneath it was a white sports bra that wrapped around her breasts and crisscrossed in the back. She covered herself quickly by slipping into the black crop-top she had pulled from her bag, a short sleeve, crewneck that exposed her ombligo. Ramona then raised the hem of her pleated plaid uniform skirt by folding the waistband into itself a few times, as she had seen her friends do before at school but had been too embarrassed to try herself. She liked the way the skirt hung from her hips and swayed more freely with the wind, as she took-up pace toward the compound’s front gates, backpack hanging over one shoulder.
Ramona made a scheduled stop at the Abarrotes La Ventana, one of the compound’s first-floor apartments turned convenience stores. She pulled on the tinsel chord that ran through a small opening near the top right corner of the window frame. It swayed lightly over the white iron ventana bars, as Ramona waited for an answer. On the other side of the window was La Doña—as everyone called her—who must have been making almuerzo because when she answered, the smoke of fried meat streamed through the barred window and joined the humid air of that October morning. Ramona asked for a water bottle, spearmint gum, and a bar of Carlos V chocolate, then handed La Doña the exact amount in pesos before hearing the total. Ramona had an itinerary to follow, and she didn’t have many minutes to spare.
Though she was used to watchful vecinas, once on the main street, Ramona began to feel the heat of different spying eyes, but she pushed past the discomfort to focus on reviewing the day’s route on public transit. This was her first time going to el Zócalo without an escort and had intended to venture the day with her friend Tania, who had backed-out at the last minute. Her friend had been hesitant about the plan and decided not to go out of fear. Ramona had weighed her options and realized that she feared the consequences of not doing something to change the circumstances of her life more than venturing into the center of México City to meet a stranger who could help change her futuro.
The pesero’s brakes screeched before reaching a complete stop near Ramona’s hailing arm. She climbed onto the metal bus and grabbed the first handrail within reach. The driver’s foot dropped heavy on the gas pedal, and, within seconds, the bus had recovered the speed it had lost.
“Does this bus go to el tren ligero?” Ramona shouted over the sound of the bus’ engine and rattling bones.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“El Zócalo. I think I need to catch el tren at Textitlán or Registro Federal. But the closest stop is fine,” she said.
He nodded without taking his eyes off the road. The bus shook and groaned as it accelerated and decelerated through the city’s congested streets. Ramona was only matter to the invisible forces of speed and motion that she had learned about in física, and, for a quick moment, their pull felt overwhelming and doubt that she had any power to change the course of her destino sprouted. She recognized that it was risky to travel the 24 kilometers to el Zócalo to meet Sebastián, a total stranger, as Tania had reminded her. But she knew that the universe had set the events and bodies into movimiento that had gotten Ramona to this specific moment and it was her duty to see this oportunidad through.
“I can get you to Registro Federal. You’ll have to walk a block and then cross el puente for Tasqueña,” he told her, turning his head in her direction without taking his eyes off the road. The clamor of wind rushing through his rolled-down window and the forces of nature and doubt that were pulling her in different directions added urgency to her decision. She nodded as if she understood, wrapped an arm around a metal pole behind the driver’s large seat for safety, and then retrieved her wallet from her backpack.
“Cuanto?” she asked, leaning forward with a cupped hand of coins.
She paid the fare and waited for the clanking bus to slow before making her way toward a seat by a window, so that she could read street names along the way. There were more people riding the bus than she had expected at half past 8 a.m.
Ramona’s fingers grazed the textured plastic tops of bus seats as she made her way quickly toward the rear exit trying to avoid reaching overhead for the yellow handles. Although she had put serious thought into what she would wear this day, she was suddenly self-conscious of how the black crop-top revealed her flesh. Unable to stop ogling riders from scanning her legs or inspecting her waistline and upper torso, Ramona sought refuge at the back row of seats. She crossed her legs at the ankles and squeezed the mochila against her chest for both balance and protection. She fixed her sight on the lulling traffic, trying to distract herself from the awkwardness she felt among the other seated bodies. Ramona reminded herself that challenging moments in pursuit of dreams, like these, were only temporary and that they would not matter mañana.
The bus sped over rain-filled potholes and past stops at intersections passengers had requested, and Ramona quickly realized that the camión was being driven by the kind of conductor who scorned slowing. She worried she’d miss her parada.
She scanned the streets for something familiar and, even though the view was mostly obstructed by vehicles on the carretera and blinding light refractions, she eventually was able to recognize storefronts—the ones she and Tania had walked past many times on their way to the new mall. The distinct street-facing white brick façade of Galerías Coapa came into view ahead and, for the first time, she observed its grandeur and how it loomed over the surrounding buildings, people, and the rest of the city’s moving parts. Ramona was relieved, though, to have found herself in the city.
They flew past el Nuevo Bazar Pericoapa, the outdoor marketplace where a cute tattoo artist wearing a fitted white V-neck camiseta and large black boots had almost convinced Ramona to mark herself permanently. Abuelita would have committed her to a convento if Tania had not shaken Ramona from the spell she had been under. Ramona scribbled her phone number on a wide-ruled piece of paper that she had torn from Tania’s binder, still in Tania’s arms. When the cute guy took the piece of paper, he squeezed Ramona’s hand. She waited for his call that entire weekend, but he never called, or maybe he did, but Abuelita hadn’t delivered his message. Within a week, she had forgotten all about the guy and was only now, months later inside the muggy bus, remembering the way he had touched her hand and made her feel.
She knew her stop was nearing when la Prepa 5, the national high school she hoped to transfer to the following year, came into view on her right. A confidence emanated from the comportment of students hanging outside the campus’ walls, the way they gestured comely with their hands as they spoke or crossed their arms when they listened. They had the liberty to come and go from campus, free to make it to their classes without the disapproving look of school attendants, and Ramona wanted that.
When she stepped on the light-rail’s platform, the city had turned upside down. Right became left and left became right, and the remaining certainty she had carried all this way was gone. She looked at the signage overhead and it disoriented her even more. Xochimilco? She’s been there many times before with Abuelita and her tías, but it didn’t signal the way now. If only she had paid better attention when she had traveled with them and not wandered into ensueños, she’d know the city by now.
She walked closer to the black rounded-edge sign that read “Xochimilco” in thick white sans-serif font with an arrow pointing downward, signaling the rail’s dirección, when a second sign emerged from behind the platform’s middle concrete column. In the same type it read “Tasqueña,” and the bus driver’s words returned to her and extinguished the growing dismay.
Now that she knew which way to go, the next leg of her trip would begin here, at Registro Federal, and conclude when the tren ligero reached the line’s final stop where Ramona would have to hop onto the city’s subway system and arrive at el Zócalo and her destino.
On the light rail, Ramona was able to relax. She opened the bottled water and chocolate bar she had bought from La Doña that morning and enjoyed them both. The train wasn’t whirling in chaos like the bus had been and it allowed her to think about what it was going to be like when she met Darren Hayes. She thought about what she was going to say: “I knew I loved you before I met you.” As cursi as that sounded, it was truly how she felt. She remembered the first time she saw Savage Garden on MTV and experienced déjà vu, while watching the music video of “Truly Madly Deeply.” The feeling was like vertigo, her life force spinning within her and then she felt like she was floating while she sat on Abuela’s plastic covered auburn couch. There was a ringing and then fading images of a past life, and she knew instantly that she and Darren belonged from before this time.
Even at stations, the motions of the train were synchronous and calming. People stepped onto the platform before those on the platform stepped inside, and then the train would leave its resting state with ease.
No matter how many times Darren and Ramona fell in love in her daydreams, her thoughts returned to the moment when she would knock on his hotel room, he’d answer the door, and he’d recognize her from a life before. A rational voice from within would disperse the fantasy and ask what she was really going to say when Darren opened that door.
Sebastián said that he could take her to meet the band, to the hotel where the duo—Darren and Daniel—were staying while in México City. Without hesitation, Ramona had agreed to meet him and convinced Tania to go with her. She and Tania weren’t even supposed to be at Six Flags when they met Sebastián, and Ramona knew that she was exactly where she was meant to be.
Savage Garden was touring for their Affirmation album and were playing at the amusement park that Ramona was visiting for primera vez. Meeting Sebastián had also been a casualidad. She had noticed the posters just outside of the barricaded amphitheater inside the park, as they were on their way to the next rollercoaster. Tania and she were both oohing and aahing while leaning over the three-foot steel barricades when Sebastián walked over to them from the other side of the fence. He donned a windbreaker with the word “Security” in bold yellow letters, stitched over his heart.
“To answer your question, no, you can’t stay to listen,” Sebastián said to them. “They’re playing tomorrow night after the park closes.”
“Can you get us in?” Ramona heard herself asking. Tania shot her a look but didn’t say anything.
“Desafortunadamente, no,” he said with a grin.
They said thank you and began to walk away. Ramona was crushed and had gotten her hopes up in the few minutes the two of them had imagined attending el concierto and finally meeting Darren Hayes, the singer of Savage Garden, and love of her life.
“I know where they’re staying,” Sebastián shouted after them. “And if you want, I can take you to meet them.”
If el universo had conspired to bring this opportunity to her, Ramona needed to take it.
When the light rail arrived at the end of its route, it joined the underground Metro system. Ramona had fallen asleep with her head pressed against the windowpane, but the cab’s stillness woke her, and she quickly gathered her things and rushed through the sliding doors before they closed her in.
She needed to find the Blue Line, and she did, quickly. If the subway system was the veins of the city, pumping citizens through its body, Ramona was only a couple of stops from the heart—el Zócalo—where the Palacio de Bellas Artes was located.
At the palace plaza Ramona considered turning back. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she was nervous, scared even, of what came next. But if she and Darren didn’t meet today, how could she face her friends tomorrow, especially Tania who had called her an “aventada”? And if Darren asked her to join him after their last show in México, could she leave the life she had made for herself since moving to the ciudad three years ago? She hadn’t considered another possibility because simply thinking about it could make it true, but what if Darren didn’t choose her?
The sun had burned off the remaining cumulus clouds from the previous days’ showers and the palacio’s blue-grey marble resplandecía under the sky’s openness. Shiny things like gleaming stones or grand sculptures had never really impressed her, but today was different. Her soul and heart were open.
Ramona wove through the crowd of tourists and reached the front entrance of the palace. She climbed its steps, heart-beating faster as she ascended. She expected to find Sebastián near the front doors when she reached the landing, observing her with admiración, but she didn’t find his face. She glanced at her white-gold wristwatch, the one Abuelita had given her for her quince’s. It wasn’t ten a.m. yet.
Against a pilar she rested and faced the front plaza where the Pegasus stood stoically below. Tourists posed in front of the white sculpture for pictures, and, for some reason, she became melancholic. Ramona undid her folded waistband and wrapped her arms over her exposed belly. She leaned uncomfortably but couldn’t help smiling when she spotted a couple kissing, and she thought about how she still didn’t know what that feeling was.
From Avenida Juárez, Ramona heard the familiar chugging of a microbús’ engine and screeching breaks and, for un momento breve, she wondered if it was the universe calling her back like a siren’s song. It was then that she recognized the chavo moving decidedly toward her. It was Sebastián. Excitement began to swell within and the dreams she had never shared with anyone, not even with Tania, seemed even more within reach.
“Hola,” he said and leaned in to kiss on both cheeks. She blew kisses in the air while he pressed his lips directly on her skin. Sebastián smelled nice and looked different without the black windbreaker with thick yellow type that she had met him in.
“Hola,” she said and looked down shyly and noticed that he had dressed up. Black shoes and a tucked checkered pale blue button-up.
“You look nice,” he told her. “Were you waiting long?”
Ramona smiled. “No. I just got here too,” she said, while slinging her backpack over a shoulder to signal that she was ready to go.
He smiled. “Bueno. Should we go?”
They were riding the metrobús southbound on Avenida Paseo de la Reforma. Sebastián had paid for their pasajes and had led them to a section of the bus with facing seats. Ramona chose a forward seat so that she could try to follow their path along the teeming avenue, but also because backward-facing seats made her sick. Her guide chose the asiento in front of her.
“So, where are we going again?” Neither one of them had intimated the reason they had met today. Ramona felt a bit embarrassed to be asking now, after she had followed Sebastián on to a bus. Once on the rapid, she worried that they would miss their stop, especially since Sebastián seemed more interested in knowing about her than where they were bound.
“Estan en el Hyatt,” he said.
“And how much farther from here?” Ramona motioned to the outside with her chin.
“Like 20 or 30 minutes. It’s after el bosque. You’ll see it.”
“See the hotel from the bus or?”
He laughed. “No. You’ll see el Bosque de Chapultepec. Have you ever been?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“We’ll be close to the garden. It’s pretty. Well… not as pretty as you.” He waited for Ramona to respond and when she didn’t, he added, “We could go.”
“Um, I don’t think I can. I really should be getting back home after, so that I don’t get in trouble,” she said. Ramona had had a boyfriend before, one of her classmates, and she had yearned for them to venture into the city on Saturdays, holding hands through the park or kissing on trajineras, but things didn’t work out as she had dreamed. She wanted to say ‘yes’ to Sebastián, but she stopped herself because there was no future. Not with him. Not with anybody after today.
She nodded. “I didn’t go to school.”
“Yeah, I noticed you are wearing your uniform.”
The way Sebastián stared at her when things got quiet was as if he was able to see into her mind and his deciphering made her feel uncomfortably vulnerable. To change the subject she said, “And what about you? No school today?”
“No. I’m done with school.”
“Wait, how old are you? You already finished la Universidad?”
“After the secundaria, my family didn’t have money to send me, so I just work now to help out,” he said.
“Oh. At Six Flags?”
He nodded. “As soon as I turned 16. And before that I was working with my ‘apa on the weekends.”
“What does he do?”
“So, you’re never going back to school?”
He shook his head, not in a resigned way that indicated he felt helpless, but in a manner that indicated he had accepted his fate.
She mulled over Sebastián’s situation, not because she had words of comfort to offer him, but because she couldn’t imagine surrendering to life’s circumstances so early in life like Sebastián had. Education had always been important to their family and Abuelita had never allowed Ramona to place greater importance on anything else.
“Y qué más?” Sebastián said, interrupting Ramona’s pensamientos.
“What else about what?” she said, giving him a smile, hoping they could talk about something else.
“Well, tell me about this band. You must really like them, ugh?”
“I do,” she said comely, the way one admits to liking chocolate or puppies. She didn’t have to hide her feelings about Savage Garden’s music and the way that singing their songs set her free. But what she held to herself was sacrosanct, a plan for living a remarkable life that she only shared with the universe. Instead, she told Sebastián that she had brought their CDs and took them out of her bag to show him—the U.S. version of their self-titled album and Affirmation—for them to sign.
At a stop, Ramona noticed that more than half of the pasajeros disembarked, with only a few boarding. Sebastián was looking at her with curiosidad and when the bus began to inch forward, he smiled and told her to look out her window. That was when the Ángel de la Independencia came into view as they merged back into traffic and steadily joined other cars through the roundabout. Raised above the city by a column was the bronzed angel statue in the center of the thoroughfare. Although she had seen El Ángel before on la tele and on the glossy pages of magazines, she was truly seeing it for the first time, its glimmering arm signaling Ramona to continue her path.
Casandra Hernández Ríos
Casandra Hernández Ríos received her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. Her cuentos and poemas have appeared or are forthcoming in Azahares Literary Magazine, Voices de la Luna, Mystic Owl Magazine, The Acentos Review, Verdad magazine, and the Santa Ana River Review, among others. Casandra was born in Ciudad de México, raised in Los Angeles, California, and now writes from Denver, Colorado.