Christmas was coming, and Lupe, my best friend, had the idea to throw a little party for the detainees. She worked as a secretary—“Administrative assistant!” she insisted—at the McAllen Border Patrol Station, where we were headquartered. I dug around, trying to find a policy against it, since I knew the first thing José would say was, “That’s against regulation, María.” He was by the book, my brother, a real stickler for detail. But I found nada, so Lupe and I pitched our idea to José, and believe it or not, he went for it. Though not before personally consulting the rules-and-regulations three times. And despite Junior’s loudmouthed objections: “Tell me we ain’t really gonna let them monkeys out their cages, José?” Pretty unlikeable, ¿no? Now you see why I tried to keep him at arm’s length.
Lupe and I took charge of the planning. We didn’t have much time, and by now there were lots of detainees, so we decided to keep it simple. We decorated the place with red-and-green streamers, and José bought a little tree with money from his own pocket. Everyone chipped in and bought toys for the kids, which Lupe and I wrapped in colorful paper with ribbons and bows. We brought tamales, along with lots of desserts, including flan, tortillas de canela, and churros. The men drank coffee, the women sipped hot chocolate, and the children guzzled bottles of orange and strawberry Jarritos. We listened to Los Palominos and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Los Lonely Boys and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. We even humored Junior and the other rednecks and played some Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Lupe and I sang along to lots of old Selena songs, God rest her soul. Mothers danced with sons, José danced with Lupe, I turned Junior down three times. It was a fun night. Even the most sour-mouthed of the detainees brightened a little, especially for the home-cooked food.
I was in the corner, sipping a tamarind Jarritos and cooling off from another Selena sing-along when Antonio walked up. I could see him turning on the charm as he came, his smile lighting up the room like a searchlight. He didn’t greet me with Hi or Hola or Remember me? Instead, he looked me in the eye and said:
“One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.”
His diction was perfect, far as I could tell. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I said, “Having fun, Antonio?”
“Please, call me Tony.”
“Where did you learn to talk like that?” I studied him studying me. A ZZ Top song came on, and people fell into a gyrating trance, men, women, and children alike. As for me, I felt out of breath, and the room was suddenly too warm. “Was that Shakespeare or something?”
He nodded. “Romeo and Juliet.”
We waited for the screaming guitars and pounding rhythm to peter out, sipping Jarritos and feeling awkward. When Selena’s “Amor Prohibido” came on, Tony took my hand and gazed into my eyes.
“¿Quieres bailar conmigo?”
Before I could respond, he had his arms around me, and we were out on the makeshift dance floor, swaying to the music. I wasn’t a good dancer, and neither was he, but we could more or less keep time to the ballad. I expected Tony to smell like the others: sweat and earth and campfire smoke. But he smelled fresh, like he’d just stepped out of the shower. I could feel José’s eyes boring through my back, and I knew Junior was probably watching us like a hawk, too, so I pretended I was simply being a generous hostess. I even tried to convince myself, but I was never a good liar.
When the song ended, Tony said, “I knew something was gonna happen, had to happen, but this is so much more.”
I nodded and thanked him for the dance, then made a beeline to where Lupe lingered, hovering near the churros. When I walked up, she handed me one in a piece of wax paper.
“Hot stuff, chica.”
“It was just a dance.”
She gave me that look and laughed, then bit into my churro. “That’s not what it looked like from here,” she said, her mouth full.
My cheeks flushed. I wasn’t sure what was going on.
Tony’s friend Carlos swaggered over when the next slow song came on. He looked Lupe up and down and grinned. “Vamos bailar.” When she didn’t respond, he turned to me. “Let’s go dance?” he said, nodding at Lupe.
I elbowed her. She pretended she hadn’t heard. “It seems Mr. Hernandez would like to request this dance,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said Lupe, “but I’m otherwise occupied.”
Again, Carlos looked at me, palms up, his face a question mark. I simply shook my head, and he trudged off.
Soon José came over and poked around at the flan. He picked up a bowl, sniffed at it, then shoveled some into his mouth with a plastic spoon.
“I’ve noticed you fraternizing with the detainees,” he said.
“You should get out more, José,” said Lupe.
“A little respect,” he said. “Chief Gonzalez, please.”
“Ugh,” said Lupe.
I rolled my eyes.
“Anyway,” she said, “that’s what people do at parties.”
“I don’t want to see either of you dancing with illegals,” he said. “Sends the wrong message. Makes us look bad.” José glared at me. “Specially when there’s a born-and-bred American waiting to make you his lawfully-wedded wife.”
Lupe giggled. I couldn’t believe José was serious. We both scanned the room for Junior, who was lurking in the back corner near the photocopier, taking regular pulls from his flask.
“And a fine prospect, indeed,” said Lupe in a bad British accent.
“No joke,” I said. “He’s a complete mess.”
“Whose fault is that, María?” said José.
When all the food and most of the drinks were gone, José thanked everyone for coming. Cleanup was straightforward. We stacked the dishes and tossed the trash. Junior staggered around, a weepy, sweaty mess, getting in everyone’s way, while some of the other agents began corralling the detainees to usher them back to their holding cells. Soon Tony sidled up next to me, whispering in my ear.
“Goodnight, goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”
“Sorry, what?” I said.
In response, Tony leaned in and kissed me.
Good thing José missed the whole thing.