Christian H. Morales is a Honduran writer living in Tennessee. His work has been featured in Latine Lit, Maudlin House, Malarkey Books and Inked in Gray.
Four Oreos in the Icebox
One could say that Roque was the kind of person who enjoyed loneliness—and the added silence to it—as an introverted child enjoys an afternoon of video games alone in his bedroom, playing without anyone around to bother him. Going to the movie theater alone on a Thursday night was the norm for him, to sit alone on a bar stool on a Friday night to watch a boxing match on a muted TV set on ESPN behind the bar was part of his routine. That's why when he entered the Val Verde prison in Del Rio, Texas, with his hands cuffed for the second time in his life, and met the chatterbox that was the guy named Luis Lobo, a man from El Salvador that Roque came to hate on first sight for no other reason than to know on the spot that this asshole would rob him of his solitude, he saw his worst social nightmare coming true, and there was no escaping it. He was trapped and he felt it from the first time since his imprisonment in the American judicial system had begun a few days ago—that now felt like months.
Roque had been transferred from a Customs and Border Protection facility in a white van with a very official logo on the side that he didn't care to read. An officer in a gray uniform put him in an empty seat in the back, and closed the door with the barred window that matched all the windows and the rest of the interior in the vehicle. With all the added metal weight around him (to give the prisoners the impression that it was impossible to escape from this vehicle), Roque's practical mind came up with the only pragmatic thought that Wednesday afternoon: "This van ought to burn a lot of gas to move around and about."
The trip from the border patrol facility in Uvalde—where they kept him for fourteen days—to the Val Verde Correctional Facility took fifty minutes. On the way to his new place of forced residence, Roque saw in broad daylight the familiar spots on the side of the road where he and José Luis hid for six days during their odyssey to reach Houston. From inside the van—where he was the only passenger—Roque saw the inhospitable pieces of private land where the plants, trees, and even the grass were full of thorns, thorns that stuck on their already hurt hands when they let their bodies collapse on the ground in the search for a little shade to rest under the terrible Texan sun. In the six nights of walking the lonely roads created by ranch owners, the thorns had pierced their shoes finding their way into the soles of their feet. They pierced their clothes leaving scratches on their skin that looked like old tattoos drawn with inkless machines. During their journey, Roque imagined that nothing could be worse than being laid down on a carpet of green grass with hidden thorns in it, or to be tired to the point of almost falling asleep in the middle of his fourth night of walking a road where they heard a pack of coyotes in the distance. He was wrong, the worst thing was to be forced to hide at noon within leafless trees and not find a trace of water. To be so thirsty that he would have drunk his own piss if he had any left in his bladder. The thirst clouded their minds in the moment of greatest need when they were hours away from passing around the first Border Patrol checkpoint, leaving them without an idea of what to do. In their original plan, they decided to go around the checkpoints for miles as all the others had done before them, but in the condition their bodies were in, that idea seemed unreachable. They needed to get to Houston, but to cross Uvalde and San Antonio felt like something that only a superhero would be able to achieve.
By the time the border patrol agent found Roque, he and Jose Luis had already split up. It happened the night they walked the railroads for hours hoping to find a river or a puddle from which to drink some water. They already spent three days without food and one full day without any liquid. By then, their perspectives were down; they no longer expected to reach Houston. When they finally found the river, their bodies cried out of happiness—their hopes were sky-high again despite the nights of interminable walking and the bleeding blisters on their feet, but the celebration only lasted a few minutes. After they drank enough water to alleviate their hunger, a BPO found them on the river´s edge. Both Roque and Jose Luis panicked when they saw the uniformed man pointing his flashlight at them in the dead of the night, and without thinking twice, they ran across the river. Roque's energies were lower than Jose Luis’. On the other shore he lost track of his friend.
Roque stayed hidden among the bushes on the shore the next day, waiting for Jose Luis to show up, but he never came back. Once the night replaced the day, he put on his shoes and made a great effort to walk again, following the river downstream, defeated, and hopeless. That night he lay next to a dead tree, as tired as he had ever been in his entire life.
A German Shepherd found him asleep. When Roque woke up to the dog's grunts, a white light was pointed at his sweaty, filthy face. The patrol agent handcuffed him, put him in custody in the back of his SUV, and took him to the nearest CBP, where they locked him up in an icebox with fifteen other men who looked as tired and filthy as he was.
The Salvadoran's eyes shone when Roque entered the cell and made eye contact with him. In broken Spanish, officers in white and blue uniforms ordered them to take off their dirty clothes and put on the orange uniforms. The uniform was too big—Roque didn't need a mirror to confirm this bit of information, he had lost a lot of weight in his journey and then confinement—and gave him a great sense of discomfort that put him in an edgy mood. When he finished dressing in what would be his clothes for an indefinite time, Roque sat next to the Salvadoran who had a stupid smile on his face. He looked like someone about to get on the funniest ride in the world. Roque nodded at him and said, "How are you?"
Roque found a certain falsehood in the humble attitude of Ángel Lobo's manners. "Where are you from, amigo?" Lobo asked. Roque saw in the guy's face—especially in his body language, in the way he couldn't keep his hands still or his eyes calm—the eagerness for conversation or at least to speak to someone, even if the person had zero interest in hearing what he had to say. The first thought to cross Roque's mind was a question that he'd never dared to ask out loud: Why do people feel the need to talk to strangers all the time?
"I'm from Honduras," he said in a dry, monotonous tone, the one people used all the time to kill the buzz. Roque didn't want to talk; he wanted to think. He wanted to think about his life and the series of events that put him in that little cell with the annoying guy sitting next to him. He wanted to think about Monzerrath and how much he missed her. He wanted to think about the time it'd take him to get out of this messy situation in order to be with her again.
"I know Honduras a bit," said Lobo. Roque had politely spoken to him in a way that left no room for doubt; he didn't want to talk. But the guy seemed to perceive a completely opposite vibe. He started to talk about himself uninterruptedly. The more he talked, the more Roque felt time consumed as torture. Lobo wanted to know Roque's opinion about everything he told him as if Roque had witnessed every single anecdote. Roque shrugged at every question, keeping his poker face on display in an attempt to hide his boredom and despair. Once Lobo ran out of anything else to share about his biography. Curiously, he never mentioned where or under what circumstances he got arrested in the United States. He then asked questions about the prison and the time they'd spend in there. Roque shrugged again and said, "This is the first time I have come to this country. I'm as lost as you are." Suddenly the icebox in the CBP—where he spent the roughest days of his life sleeping on the cold floor, covering himself with a thin aluminum blanket, unable to take a bath nor eat proper meals and trying to sleep with a light permanently on above him—didn't seem that bad after a few minutes in a cell with Ángel Lobo.
To avoid the white noise, Roque focused his thoughts on Monzerrath and everything he left behind in Honduras to follow the dream of being with her in New York, where she waited for him.
"I have one morra waiting for me in El Salvador," the guy said with his annoying voice full of false modesty. "I left another one in Guatemala and the last one in Mexico…"
On the many days of confinement, helplessness was never close to destroying Roque's will, uncertainty didn't touch his mind, nor did desperation come within an inch of his heart to trap him and drive him insane. He overcame every single one of the seventeen days (and the conditions in the icebox) with the serenity and self-possession of a Buddhist monk. He couldn't believe that a motherfucker—who wasn't even teasing him on purpose—had the power to break him in less than an hour, when the CBP agents with their insults and grins full of mockery hadn´t, no matter how hard they tried. But there was this fucking guy with his never-ending chatter, about to break Roque with aggressive ease.
"See, amigo," Lobo said after a pause that gave Roque false hopes. "I'm going to ask for asylum because they wanted to kill me down there in El Salvador." He showed Roque three scars on his abdomen from the same number of gunshots he received. "I'm alive by the Grace of God, amigo.}
Some men who confused me with another guy did this to me. When they came looking for me, I was with a child in a store buying some sodas. When they found me, they shot me and the kid." The tone he used was fraught with affectation, as if he wanted to inspire pity with his narration. "See, amigo, the boy's head was blown up, and the guts slipped out of his stomach. His little dick blown away and I saw all that while they shot me." One of the many things Roque had learned in his little time in custody was that incarcerated people were always looking for ways to call attention to themselves, for something to help them be the center stage of every interested look. In the icebox, he held conversations with guys who gave him up to three or four different versions of how they'd obtained their scars or under what circumstances the border patrol had arrested them. The first day in the icebox—while Roque concentrated his thoughts on things other than the bad smell within the cell—one of the guys ignored his silence and brought him out of his thoughts to tell Roque that he'd gotten trapped in San Antonio—right outside of a McDonalds. Roque didn´t even know where San Antonio was. Lobo told him that a sheriff patrol pulled up along his side as he walked away from the restaurant. The officer got out of the car and stared at his arms covered in scratches and thorn marks, and at his dirty clothes and worn-out shoes. "The sheriff stopped me and said something to me in English," said the guy while laughing, "and I froze because I didn't understand a thing he said." A couple of nights later, around two in the morning—his cellmates stayed up all night, talking unable to close their eyes to the bright light and incapable of settling on the hard-cold floor to find rest—Roque learned that the entire McDonalds story was a lie. The guy got arrested by a patrol agent at the train station in Uvalde. His guts told him that Luis Lobo's story was nothing but a bunch of made-up bullshit. If there was any truth in his tales, there couldn't be much.
A tall, fat officer—who looked a lot like Francis Ford Coppola when he filmed Apocalypse Now—came to take him and Lobo out of the cell and walked them down a hallway. Roque saw his reflection in the offices' windows as he passed them by. His bearded face reminded him of a homeless guy he ignored down in Piedras Negras the day before he crossed the river on foot. The officer put them in another cell—an exact copy of the icebox in the CBP—along with another 25 men. The Salvadoran kept talking the whole time as if he were a damned, broken CD player. With the place packed with a full audience, Lobo turned his attention to a group of Hondurans who shared stories of how and when the border patrol caught them. Roque took the opportunity to get away from the Salvadoran on his way to the toilet. He walked among the guys lying and laughing on the floor as though they were kids in detention at summer camp. Roque stood in front of the metal toilet and watched his face on the metal mirror placed five feet high. His face was emaciated and sunburned; his beard was battered and disheveled. He sighed.
He returned to his spot on the bench and sat as far as he could from Ángel Lobo; he covered himself with an old wool blanket and ignored everyone around him. His eyes got lost at the sight of the concrete ceiling while his mind wandered to the memories of the best days he’d had on earth, the days when he had loved a woman, and she had loved him back.
Roque did what he knew best during the first hours of confinement in Val Verde: He stayed away from everybody and thought about Monzerrath to the point that sometimes he confused his reality with his dreams of her. She was the center of his world, of his universe, the only thing that gave his life a meaning. He needed to return to her warm arms, to her sweet mouth, to the nights they stayed in bed, with their legs tangled, awake until the sunshine, talking about anything and nothing. God, he missed her so much.
Roque was still isolated from the conversations flooding the icebox when the annoying laugh of Ángel Lobo brought him back to reality. The crowd around Lobo grinned while he told them the most unbelievable things Roque had ever heard in lock up. He closed himself off again, lost in the memory of the best moments he’d shared with the woman he loved. He couldn't stop thinking about Monzerrath's body, her soft skin, the length of her magnificent legs, and the wistful and perverse looks she gave him every time he put a hand under her skirt in the living room while she tried to do her homework. How frustrating it was to miss her, to desire her to such an extent that he got to resent each and every one of those men around him. He couldn't gloat over his own suffering, his grief, and the physical need he had of her in the comfort of his solitude.
"They also caught me on the tracks," Roque heard. The voice had a familiar accent; the owner had to be a Honduran. To get away from the thoughts that put him in such a bad mood, Roque chose to acknowledge his cellmates' presence. He hadn't given them the slightest importance; he hadn't even given them an indifferent look. While he listened to a short guy telling how he almost got away with it, Roque took a glance at the other guys confined there: Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cameroonians (how was that even possible?), and one Haitian. Everyone talked to their respective countrymen or to the people who spoke their respective languages. The only lonely guy—apart from Roque—was the Haitian who didn't speak Spanish or English. He spoke a language that everyone would later know was Creole. Roque would lose himself in his longing for Monzerrath if he had that man's solemn and lonely peace. He would invent new conversations with her, imagine the sound of her voice which he listened to for the last time the night before he crossed the river with José Luis. And what had become of that guy? That question came to Roque's mind often, a question he wanted to have answered as soon as possible.
They met on the Honduran border with Guatemala. None of them had money to pay for a coyote, but they were smart enough to get a visa to pass through Mexico without being arrested by the Federal Police. It took them three days to cross Mexico by bus, and then they spent two more days in Piedras Negras where they tried to find ways to cross the river without being caught either by the police nor the cartels. At the end of the second day, both worked out a plan to cross the river through a blind spot in a town with little traffic called Jimenez, northwest of Piedras Negras. The plan consisted of getting into the town around midnight and crossing the river in the dead of night. On the riverbank, Roque took out his cellphone one last time, and wrote a text message for Monzerrath. After reading it twice, he pressed the send key. It was one A.M. Then he put the phone in a plastic bag, stripped down, and walked barefoot into the Rio Grande.
He walked out of the river two hours later with painful, bleeding feet, his legs almost cracked, and relieved. At some point, he thought they would never find the exit to the shore within all the treacherous terrain—in some points the water got as high as his hips and in one step he fell into a hole and was completely submerged, causing him to panic thinking he would die drawn in the lethal river and had his body would be found two months later in full decomposition. On the American shore, Roque took things out of the black trash bag to get his cellphone and send a new text to Monzerrath. When he didn't find it anywhere, the panic trapped him again. He threw everything out of the plastic bag. He paid no attention to where his things landed. The cellphone wasn't there. The bag had a hole in it, and now his cellphone was gone. He couldn't believe things went wrong in the exact moment he stepped foot in the United States. Roque stood on the shore, wearing nothing but his underwear, his arms crossed on his chest, his head up facing the full moon bathing the water with a silver light, and sighed. He breathed in and out several times to overcome the sense of defeat running through his veins. Whatever triumph he felt for reaching the US was crushed by the revolt inside of him. When he lost the possibility to communicate with Monzerrath, his heart broke. He'd left everything to be with her. He was supposed to get close to her, and during his entire journey, that was the general feeling, but standing in the United States for the first time, he was perfectly sure that his girl was farther away than he ever thought possible.
"You ready?" Jose Luis asked, behind him.
"Give me a minute, please." Roque took the needed time to recover from the setback; his eyes were lost on the shapes formed on the trees on the other side of the river when he saw a pale woman dressed in black coming out of the shadows and glowing as dimly as the moon above them. She stopped among the bushes and smiled at Roque. He was amazed by her beauty, her glow, and when she waved at him, he was so shocked that he couldn't wave back.
"Let's go, man," Jose Luis said, "it's late."
Roque turned his head at him and nodded, then he turned his head back to her, but the woman was gone, leaving Roque with the feeling that he’d had a hallucination.
The officer who put them in the icebox—the younger doppelgänger of Francis Ford Coppola—came back to give each of them a sandwich hours later. Roque hadn't eaten anything since Wednesday morning in the CBP icebox, but he wasn't hungry at all. They all took their sandwiches, and Coppola locked the door again without a word. Nobody had set any expectations about how long they were to be all crammed together in the same place, but after a few hours of dead silence from the officers, everyone in the cell arranged themselves in the best way they could to rest on the floor. Roque dozed a little but didn't sleep at all. An annoying voice persisted in keeping him awake not only during the afternoon, but also during the night. It was the Salvadoran who didn't seem tired of talking and talking and talking. Or was Roque hallucinating and imagining this guy's voice all the time? He wouldn't have been surprised if that was the case.
When Coppola took them out of the icebox in the early morning, Roque asked him the time. The guy said it was four o'clock without flinching. He didn't say if four in the afternoon or morning and Roque had no way of knowing. He was locked in a place without windows, a place designed to kill the perception of time. The officer made them walk down a long corridor where the doors seemed made of reinforced steel. All doors had numbers, each accompanied by the letter H. He put them in the last tank, 9H. The recreational area was deserted, something Roque appreciated. He was nervous and tired; he had no energy to face the mocking from the veterans. Roque had never been arrested before, but he knew what to expect from everything he heard from men he met in the icebox, men with previous experiences in prison.
Roque entered his cell. His new cellmate was sitting on the edge of his bunk as though he'd been awaiting Roque's arrival for hours. He slowly stood up and measured Roque with his eyes. Roque nodded, and the guy went back on his bunk without a single word. Roque's bunk was naked, there was neither a mattress nor pillows. He put his sack on the floor, took out a wool sheet and arranged it on the cold metal as best he could. He took the bag and knotted it to use it like a pillow. Roque lay down on the uncomfortable bunk and fell asleep almost immediately.
The dream he had that night—much to his regret—was the most erotic he'd ever had. In the dream, the women he dated before Monzerrath surrounded him in a huge, king-size bed. They were Carolina, Jimena, Lesbia, and Scarleth. The four of them positioned at each corner of the bed where he waited with a hot, throbbing erection pulsating as if it had a life of its own. The first one to get into bed was Scarleth; she crawled her way toward Roque, her eyes shining like stones burning on green fire, looking at him in that way he loved so much in a past life, one filled with tumultuous moments. He wouldn't change a thing about that relationship. The look in her eyes promised a blast, a time of infinite pleasure, free of guilt. It said he wouldn't even need the others, that with her he would be served and more than satisfied. In the dream, Roque kissed her on her thin, soft lips, caressed her cinnamon skin, and felt her hand grasp his hot limb. Scarleth lay down on the bed; and smiling lasciviously, she pulled away the piece of cloth that covered her sex. Roque's mouth watered. "Come, my Rocky," she said in her deep, sexy voice. "You can do it to me all night long, baby. You deserve it." "I'm dreaming," he said. It was not a question but a statement. She bit her lower lip and shrugged. "Does it matter?" said Scarleth. "Dream or reality, you're about to have a great time." Roque smiled sadly and decided that it was best to wake up. He was no longer young enough to have wet dreams.
At five, Roque woke up at the call for dinner. He lay on the bunk, looking up at the drawings and scribbles made by other inmates on the wall. He heard the distant cry of the dinner call once more. He sat on the bunk with an erection under his orange pants, stretched and jumped to the ground. He almost lost his balance when his feet touched the icy concrete floor. He left the cell and found the recreational area bustling with activity. He saw a row of ant-like men—arranged by color and order—walking slowly and decadently toward a cart loaded with plastic trays loaded with food.
Roque stood at the end of the line. His eyes were red and tired, and the blanket marks across his face. The tray they gave him had beans, a piece of hard bread, mashed potatoes, and a piece of grilled meat. Roque sighed with sorrow at the sad spectacle of his meal. For the umpteenth time, he missed the food from his country, especially the fried chicken with slices, and the baleada with everything. He would kill each and every one of those men for a baleada with fried beans, scrambled eggs, and fried chicken made in the Puerto Cortés market.
Roque sat next to three Mexicans who were speaking English with an accent he'd heard in gang movies. He ate in silence, well aware that he needed to be cautious all the time. Two tables to his left a guy stared at him as if he were an interesting TV show. When they made eye contact, Roque held his gaze while still eating, the guy grinned with his lips—but not with his eyes—and nodded. Roque looked away, pretending a calmness he was far from feeling. After finishing his meal, he went back to his cell. Getting to know new people was not something he wanted to do.
A loud voice called his name at two in the morning. Roque woke up and walked out of the cell to see what was going on. An officer walked the recreational area with a list of names on a white sheet. He called twenty-four names twice and ordered the men to be ready in ten minutes for their transportation to the criminal court of the Western District of Texas. Another icebox was waiting for what would be the beginning of another tedious and insufferable day. At first, silence reigned in the icy room. All of its occupants were more focused on sleeping than thinking about what awaited them once they were standing before a judge.
Luis Lobo—to nobody's surprise—broke the silence first. Roque sat on the concrete bench, staring at one of the walls when he heard the familiar and irritating voice. His day was starting on the wrong foot.
"There isn't a moment of peace with that careverga," said the guy sitting on Roque's left in a low voice.
"Just ignore him," Roque said. "All that fool wants is to get attention, like a four-year old."
The guy nodded. "What do you think about what these motherfuckers are doing to us?" Said the man who later introduced himself as Francisco. "They don't tell us anything. They don't tell us if they're going to deport us nor how long they think they'll have us locked up like fucking criminals."
"I don't have an opinion," Roque said and sighed. It was way too early to be having a conversation.
Francisco nodded; his face was a mask of pure sadness. "I was a police officer for five years," he said, "but I was discharged when a marero almost blew my knee off with a thirty-eight revolver one night when we raided one of the worst neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula. If that hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't be here. I'd be sergeant by now."
"Why did you leave the country?" Roque asked, knowing that there was no way to escape a conversation in this place.
"Because once I was discharged from the police, the mareros came looking for me. They tried to kill me twice. I managed to escape both times.” Both Roque and Francisco had their eyes locked on the Salvadoran who was telling yet a different version of how he got his scars. A few minutes later, he started to talk about an inmate who was raped in that same prison the same day he went to his first trial. "He doesn't know what bullshit stories to tell them anymore," said Francisco. He grinned like someone who was about to give in to madness.
At five in the morning an officer brought them breakfast (another sandwich), and at six, two others put them in a line to handcuff their hands and feet one more time, the third time for Roque.
The worst part of being handcuffed was not the lack of movement of his hands and legs, but the sense of injustice bursting within him, to be treated like a criminal when he'd never committed a crime in his life. He struggled to squelch the howl that burned in his throat every time the metal hurt his wrists, every time he stumbled on his way to the toilet.
He was not the only one affected by the new addition to their uniforms. Luis Lobo's mood changed when the handcuffs closed on his wrist and ankles; he went from being jovial and talkative to frowning and aggressive. When the officers yelled at them to line up again to leave the cell, he almost tripped over his own chains, but instead of laughing at his own clumsiness, he blamed the 19-year-old boy in front of him. "Be careful," he groaned. The boy turned around, laughed without shrinking, and said, "Watch where you step." The Salvadoran rejected the boy's attitude and his recommendation and promised retaliation on his return from court. "Look for me wherever and whenever you want," said the boy, holding Lobo's gaze.
Everyone pleaded guilty to having entered the United States of America illegally. The judge gave them time served and told them that it was up to ICE's how much more time they had to spend in prison. "I have no power over immigration cases," he said. Roque was especially disappointed when he heard the judge say those words. How long was his torture going to last?
After the trial ended, the officers transported them back to Val Verde to be booked again under a new inmate number. When they arrived at the prison, the officers removed the chains and put everyone in a new icebox. It was unfair. In that cold cell—which was smaller than the previous one—everyone settled in as best they could. They were tight against each other on the small floor space; they couldn't lie down with their legs stretched out. Roque, as was his custom, sat staring at the wall, thinking about Monzerrath; how happy it would make him to hear her voice even for only ten seconds. He thought of her dark, dazzling eyes, and smile that could instantly warm his heart.
Two officers came to the cell pushing two food carts loaded with paper bags. The men stood at the door and distributed the paper bags with a small bottle of water. Until then Roque hadn't realized how hungry he was. It was lunchtime, but how to tell if there was no clock in that place.
Roque opened the paper bag and looked inside. What he saw was discouraging: one cold turkey sandwich and four Oreo cookies. When was the last time Roque ate chocolate cookies? No idea, which meant that it'd been a long time, perhaps an eternity, when he was another man and life was diametrically different, before he became a prisoner to forces greater than him. He ate the sandwich slowly, trying to make each bite count. He saved the cookies for later; they were something special. He wanted to take his time with the cookies, to savor them with detailed passion.
After the pyrrhic lunch, most of Roque's unfortunate mates settled in as best they could on the icy floor, they were tired and needed to get some rest. A few minutes later, things twisted a little. Roque breathed in the tension, sensing that everyone was on the verge of a violent attack; this is what confinement does to a man, to his mind, to his spirit. It shrinks him little by little until it leaves him on the edge, and he has no choice but to jump to perdition with his arms wide open. Roque himself was a push away from falling into it. For example, earlier in the morning, when Lobo threatened the boy, Roque saw the unmistakable signs in the eyes of both men. If they would've been free, they would've fought right there in front of everyone. Roque was sure that the storm was near. He prayed under his breath, asking God or whatever forces out there to send someone to get them out of there and put them back in the block cells where everyone could lock themselves in a cell and go to sleep to calm down.
He sighed with relief when he saw that everyone was about to fall asleep. But to his regret the peace was only momentary. Roque was not surprised that Luis Lobo was the one to take the first step. Lobo lay on the concrete bench in a fetal position when he farted on some boy's head, one of those kids who will take any type of abuse and will never raise his voice to defend himself simply because conflict isn't a part of his nature.
"Stop doing that," Roque heard himself saying. He had had enough of this fucking guy.
"Mind your own business," said the Salvadoran. "This is not your problem."
"Your behavior and your attitude makes it my problem."
Both men stood up and confronted each other like two boxers who had been weighed at the scales the afternoon before their fight. Roque was slightly taller and had wider shoulders, but Lobo had a more robust build, his lower train seemed an exact extension of his back. The other men perked up at the fuss and leaned in to witness the event. Nobody said anything, everyone stayed still, watching what was happening, waiting for Roque to throw the first blow or for Lobo to honor his big mouth.
"It's your problem, huh?" Lobo said.
"That's right," said Roque.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to take you to school, you ignorant fuck," Roque said.
The insult worked. Lobo's face lit up, his nostrils widened, and his hands clenched into fists bigger than Roque's. The sound of the keys stopped them from going at it. Someone opened the door.
"Saved by the bell” said Lobo.
"Keep thinking that, pendejo."
"I'll see you in the block."
"Too much blah blah and too little action," Roque said.
The guy who served them breakfast appeared at the door and woke those few still sleeping with shouts that echoed through the icebox. Roque saw the anger disappeared from his rival's eyes. He admired Lobo. He could never calm down so easily. Since high school, Roque always tried to keep his calm at all times to avoid getting into fights. Once his mind clouded with violent thoughts, he found no peace until his fists crashed into someone's face. He would only begin to calm down when he saw the blood on his fists. That facet of his personality would get him into a lot of trouble in a prison. He knew that, but there was no room for judgment when there was no room for reasoning, especially with assholes like Luis Lobo.
"Come on, come on!" The officer shouted from the doorway. He was an arrogant fucker who barely measured 5’4, but he walked around with the attitude of someone who was 6’5. "Everyone up, don't waste my time!"
Shorty—that's what Roque called him—led them down the usual hallway, but didn't put them in the same block, the 9H. He put them in the first block, the 1H. Roque's expectations regarding the new place were low, almost nil. In any case, he wasn´t paying attention to the place when Shorty told them to wait in a line in front of the metal door. He was still focused on failed attempts to suppress the anger filling him and threatening to escape from him at any time. He was having violent fantasies of all kinds, images in which his brain gloated like a porn addict in an XXX movie theater back in the eighties. In the one he liked the most, he imagined crashing Lobo's head against a wall over and over again until his skull cracked, and his hands were stained with blood and a jelly-like material up to his elbows. He also imagined putting him out of circulation with a left-handed jab. He imagined Lobo falling to the ground with a crash, a dry blow like a sack of potatoes thrown from a truck to a sidewalk.
Shorty brought him back to reality when he shouted his last name along with 12 others. Luis Lobo, the Salvadoran, was not among them. A wave of mixed feelings crashed in the lower part of Roque's abdomen. On one hand, he wouldn't kick the fucker's ass—and that was a damn shame—and on the other he would avoid a lot of problems by not having the promised fight.
"The thirteen of you, enter bedroom A," said Shorty. Roque entered the last. The first thing he saw was the anxious faces, the greedy looks, and the mocking smiles of the other inmates, men who walked by his side as escorts in a funeral march. "Walk to the end," said one of the men at his side. The end was the showers. Six men were waiting for them. They received the group with hard, analytical eyes. The leader was a tall, bald guy with the coldest eyes Roque had ever seen. He recited the house rules: no one uses the toilets during meals, no one talks during meals, and no one showers during meals. The toilets in the cells were only for urinating and their use was prohibited every night after ten thirty. That way, they avoid problems between cellmates; if they needed to shit, they had to do it in one of the toilets in the recreational area. Everyone nodded in understanding. "And another thing," said the bald man, "if any of you belong to a gang, you better tell me right now. We are paisas in this block, and we run the joint. If you're a member of a different organization, we’ll ask the CO to get you out of here asap and put you with your people."
Francisco spoke for everyone saying that none of them had gang affiliation. "This is the first time we’ve been in the country and none of us had met anyone who could belong to any gang." The bald man nodded and told assigned them their cells.
The meeting with the paisas only fueled Roque's anger. He never responded well to attempts of intimidation. The way in which those men cornered his group by the showers and the way the bald asshole spoke to them while his crew stood behind him got on Roque's nerves. The self-complacent way the other men looked at them—as though they were in the presence of new meat—boiled Roque's blood, especially the way a fat man as tall as Coppola looked at him. The guy had the idiotic smile of a bully who'd burned thousands of ants with a magnifying glass found in one of his grandpa's drawers in the garage. Roque already had enough bullshit to deal with. He did not need those assholes to play the big shots in a place like that.
Roque's cell—the 212—was on the second floor. The fat man grinned with great pleasure when he got Roque for cellmate. He pointed at Roque with a fat index finger and ordered him to follow him. Roque wasn't aware of it, but his face was pale with rage and a vein throbbed on his forehead as he walked the stairs in front of the fat man. As he walked the steps, he felt the fat guy's gluttonous look on his ass. Upon reaching the cell, the fat man pushed him to enter. "You get the top bunk," he said. Roque didn't object. He put his bag on the floor and took out his things, including a bible he found in his previous cell and the Oreo cookies from lunch. Roque put the paper bag with the Oreos on the table and said nothing when the fat man reached out and took it. He grinned stupidly, as if he were the connoisseur of a succulent secret. The fat-ass opened the paper bag. It ripped when his plump hand reached inside to take out one of the cookies.
"You better leave that where you found it," Roque said. His voice was as cold as the wind blows on a morning in the middle of January.
"I'll leave it if you blow me," said the fat man and, still smiling, he put his pants down and pulled his soldier out of his underwear. If Roque hadn't been already furious from the confrontation with Lobo and the sense of humiliation left by the paisas, he would've laughed hard at such a pathetic sight. He didn't even look for possible excuses in his mind to avoid the confrontation. The fat man was asking for it, he even blocked the cell door to keep Roque "trapped".
The fat man left his dick out and put one cookie in his mouth. The rational side of Roque's brain gave up control over the matter to his emotional side. Roque saw the rest of the confrontation as though he was a third person in the room, everything from a distant point of view. He saw himself smashing his left fist with an almost unknown strength into the fat man's jaw. Roque's retina captured the movement of the muscles on the guy's face as if it were a slow-motion sequence. He saw the tendons of his fist tighten on contact with the greasy skin of the guy's chin, saw the man's eyes go for a walk and leave two white spheres in their place, saw the jaw move from side to side in the head, from west to east. He saw the cookie flying out of the open mouth and saw it float in the air for a fraction of a second in which clarity appropriated his mind—the way he perceived things—and then saw that the world was returning at normal speed and the fat man collapsed on the floor of the cell with a thunderous thumb, unconscious.
Roque didn't care if the noise from fat-ass´ fall was heard outside in the common area. The only thing to occupy his mind was one thought: I have to leave this asshole out-of-commission. Shit was about to get real, and he didn't need to be worrying about the fuck-face while confronting his friends. The job had to be finished. He bent over his unconscious cellmate and punched him twice on the jaw, the second punch dislocated it. The pain made the fat man regain consciousness, but Roque knocked him out again when he grabbed his head and slammed it against the metal toilet.
Roque took a blanket and tore it in pieces that he used to tie the guy's feet and hands, like a pig ready to be roasted over low fire. He then opened the cell door two inches to see what was going on outside. Everything was going well, better than expected, with everyone minding their own business. Roque closed the door behind him and leaned back on the lower bunk. He felt as calm as if he were in his own bed. The image of the unconscious bastard filled his heart with joy and peace. Roque rested his head on the pillow and stared at the door's window.
As he had no plans to leave the cell, he stayed on the cot thinking about Monzerrath; her full lips, her smile, her black eyes like the onyx, her hair as black as a raven's wing. He thought of her long legs and how much he enjoyed caressing them all the time. He thought of her irresistible personality and the perfect combination it made with her beauty. Roque imagined the conversation they would have when he got out of prison and met up with her. "I've seen things you won't believe," Roque would say, "just to be with you. I've seen a phosphorescent green snake swimming downstream in the Rio Grande, the Andromeda Galaxy so close in the sky that I felt my hand could reach out and grab a star in the cold night of the Texan desert, two rattlesnake dancing in a hug under the hot sun at high-noon, to a wolf chasing away the full moon in the hills as he walked under the silver light that bathed the path his legs followed." She would kiss him on the forehead. "I've been dead-thirsty and hungry, and I've had hallucinations in the desert day and night, and you were in all of them. I ran for my life to get away from dangerous animals. I've done things I never thought I would do for anyone else, but I did them for you, because I love you." And then they would make love.
Roque got lost in the sound of memories he evoked to see Monzerrath, in the moans of pleasure, in the music of her laughter, in the whispers in the early morning. Fatigue invaded him; the last forty-eight hours had been rough and emotionally draining. He settled back in bed thinking it was time to find a way to contact the love of his life. But he would do it later, when the guards made the next count round and had to get him out of that cellblock to save his life from the reprisals that awaited him from the fat man's friends, the paisas. Roque imagined the conversation he would have with Monzerrath in a future not so distant. He imagined her beautiful eyes, paying full attention to all the things he had to tell her, he imagined her laughter, clean and free of worry when he told her about fucking Luis Lobo and how he was two seconds away from kicking his ass. He imagined her grin when he told her about the awful orange uniforms and having to take his showers and shits in a common bathroom. He imagined her eyes filling with tears as he tried to explain the feeling of being trapped in a place out of the bounds of time and everything else that happened in the desert, the CBP, and the Federal Correctional Facility of Val Verde. Because he loved her and wanted to be with her at all costs. Roque sighed, lay on his bunk and waited for the next count round.