I negotiated the last of the airport hurdles at customs, and was the lone passenger who turned to the right, rather than left to make a connecting flight. Many people lined each side of the wide walkway running from the arrival doors between the coffee shop and the seating against the windows; some held up sheets of paper with a surname printed in large, dark capital letters. Others waited to recognize a face gone absence-blurred. As I scanned the faces for my own white-haired lady, I saw disappointment and waning patience registered in strangers’ eyes, and then there was Mom moving in her determined, crooked stride to where the walkway is no longer bounded by barrier rail. The strangers’ faces disappeared in her wide, wonderful smile, and arms warm and strong.
At my departure point, my house, a few hours earlier, I patted the cats and told them to behave, opened them a bowlful of kitty treats. Cats don’t give great hugs, and mine had spent the night on the couch. Intuition (or the packed bags by the door) alerted them to my imminent departure. I said goodbye again in spite of their indifferent glances, as I dragged my luggage out to the waiting cab, and I tried to remember all the things I ultimately forgot (boiler left running full blast, and at least one forgotten change of clothes), but couldn’t think of anything and rolled on out toward the local airport in the hours before dawn, closing and locking the big, black metal door behind me. When I bent myself into the cab, I saw Orion standing guard over the western hills.
As we drove through the city, neighborhoods flashing by in sunlight-dulled Christmas ornamentation, I had a parallel experience to one I had upon first arriving in Mexico. Winter lawns adorned with holiday lighting and grinning Santas, Rudolfs, and nativity scenes made garish in the gaudy Texas sun slid past the car windows on both sides of the car. Even with the ribbons and bows and lights and gewgaws, the homes we passed seemed shockingly naked. Windows, doors, driveways and lawns were left shamelessly unsecured, exposed to the wiles of random strangers.
That night I lay bundled under the covers of the twin bed my niece had graciously lent for my stay. I lay there warm enough, but troubled by noises and anxiety. The scrabbling of night animals outside the window facing a big empty field and a small forest of old growth brought to mind Poe stories and horrors. I kept perfectly still, measuring my breaths, being invisible. The buzz of the refrigerator and electronic devices were remarkably loud, and though I could pick them out device by device, they felt ominous. Weighted down with winter, I made an empty promise to pay attention to the volume of electric and electronic racket in my own house.
The surprise of feeling unsafe came over me as goose bumps sometimes do when I first step into the sun.
I can only imagine having driven along the streets of Torreon the first time, noticing that every window and every door of every home, every business was adorned with sturdy metal bars (rejas) built into the concrete window and doorframes. I don’t remember finding the measures unusual, but I must have been at least a little intimidated to know that virtually everyone found them necessary.
Over the years, I have come to find these architectural features more beautiful than strange. Some homes are bounded by a metal fence around the perimeter of the yard. Spear-like decorations often menace any would-be entrant from the upper railing of the fence. “There will be no climbing,” they shout. Other homes are surrounded by walls of concrete block along the top of which the sun dances among a garden of colorful broken glass set in concrete.
Occasionally, I wonder who the bars protect, me or random strangers who might want whatever it is they think I have. But these days, I’m merely glad to have them. Combined with the home alarm, the bars on all the windows and on the carport and over the atrium keep me safer. I try not to think about the fact that should someone find the weak point in my defenses, I am left without an escape hatch. I try not to rehearse how I will manage to get out in one piece, but sometimes I rehearse escape anyway: bathrobe, keys, panic button, steady sanity to get the key in the deadbolt, out of the deadbolt, my Self out the door, locking it behind me. My heart races picturing my bare feet slipping and sliding on the slick tile floors as I flee.
The next morning, while my coffee heated, I checked door placement in Mom’s house and figured I had a reasonable chance for escape if needed (God forbid). While I stood there pondering doors, and how fast I could get from the laundry room, across the garage and out to the yard, I realized about the windows. They lock, of course, but they are not troubled by the permanent and unyielding adornment of rejas. I felt my body and brain let go of anxiety all at once as I stirred a little sugar into the coffee. Maybe they weren’t there to protect me, but they weren’t keeping me from running away, either.
As the plane circled above the city on my return flight a week or so later, I watched Orion doing cartwheels at the apex of the inky winter sky. I smiled at his undignified behavior, and my own. I picked up my suitcases at the luggage carousel — bookended by soldiers with big guns — negotiated immigration (where I was scolded for my tattered and beaten up residency booklet) and customs and walked toward the frosted glass doors of the arrival area. I turned right through a crowd of expectant faces; some held up sheets of paper with a surname printed in large, dark capital letters. Others waited to recognize a face gone absence-blurred. I grinned at their disappointment and waning patience, and kept walking to the terminal exit, where I hailed a cab. We made our way through the neighborhoods still lit up with Christmas. Lights wrapped white or multi-colored stripes around rejas outside windows, gates and doors. Their light warmed my heart and welcomed me home. ~LD