In Medias Res, Part III

It’s almost three in the morning, and I’m driving toward Alice’s apartment. Part of me was tired over the adventure from a few hours ago, but the other side of me wanted to make sure that Alice got home safely. I assumed she was home because she was nowhere to be found when I went back to get my car after helping Tom out with the cowboys. However, as I was driving, I began wondering if I was wrong.

Nightlife in Juarez is weird. There are certain areas that are bustling with activity, especially those close enough for Americans to cross over and spend their dollars. The rest of the town is generally quiet… At least it was that way when I lived there. Since then, the escalation from the federal government in their war on drug cartels meant that several cartels fought, killed and took over Juarez as a prime gateway for transporting drugs into the United States. As soon as one cartel took over, another one would come along and stir things up.

Not so when I was living there. Yes, there was plenty of drug-related violence, but one cartel owned the city, and they made sure to also take their cut from the tourism industry. As I told the soldier, if he had gotten hurt, many people would have been made to pay the price of scaring away Americans. So, I was not worried about Alice’s safety, per se. I was worried I’d never see her again if she thought I had ditched her.

I mean, I did ditch her, but it was for a good reason. Also, I was back at my car no more than an hour after I stepped out of the nightclub. Did she really leave that quickly? As I looked at the outside of her apartment and saw all the lights were off, I wondered if she had gone home early or if she never went home. Three thirty in the morning was way too late for me to go knocking on the door, or to call her.

It’s 1990, and I’m riding my bicycle in the empty streets of Aldama at three thirty in the morning on a summer night. I had three whole months off from school back then, and I made sure to enjoy all of them by staying with dad up in the desert mountains. Because there was absolutely nothing that I had to do on any given day, I stayed up late and woke up just before noon. It was very rare that I woke up any earlier than 8am, and that was only when we were going on some trip with the family.

As I’m riding through town, enjoying how quiet everything is, a truck pulls up behind me. It is the local cop and his one partner. They turn on the blue and red lights and drive up next to me. They ask me what I’m doing up so late at night. Before I can explain to them that I’m just out enjoying the coolness of the desert night — and the incredible stillness of a whole town being asleep — they tell me to go home. “I’m sorry, but is there a curfew?” I reply. The cop driving the truck just stares at me.
“You’re Francisca’s son, aren’t you?” he asks. I nod. He smiles. “Go home. Tell her the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

It’s the early 1970s, and mom is in middle school. She stands up in the middle of the classroom while the teacher is out of the room, and she begins delivering a monologue. It’s her way of getting out all the thoughts in her head, I guess. A few years later, she is told that she is to stay home and take care of my grandmother, just like all the youngest daughters do. She is having none of it, so she goes to my grandfather and has a chat with him about her ambitions. He gives her money for school. A few years after that, I’m sitting in a baby carrier next to her while she’s taking courses on the law. That, or one of her friends is taking care of me while mom is in class. A couple more years, and mom is a lawyer, someone who is very good at delivering arguments and defending her point of view. I learn from her all I can in that regard, sometimes to my detriment.

As I’m walking away from Alice’s apartment building and back to my car, a police car pulls up. They turn on their lights and step out of the car, one of them shining his flashlight in my face. Instinctively, I raise my hands away from my body and look at the ground. “Hello,” one of them says.
“Hello,” I respond.
“What are you doing out here tonight?” the second one asks. I start wondering how much of my story they’ll want to hear. How much would they believe?
“I’m checking in on a friend,” I reply. “She was out late with me, and I lost track of her. So, I came to see if she was home yet.” They both look at each other then approach me. They ask me for my ID and I very slowly pull out my wallet. They ask me where my friend lives, and I tell them her apartment number. They look over at the building and see that all the lights are off, though one of them turns on on a higher floor from Alice’s. I see a person looking out the window.

Two years before, one of my little cousins (a toddler at the time) picks up the phone and dials 911. “Daddy is gone,” he cries. The operator keeps him on the line while she contacts a nearby patrol car. “I miss my daddy,” he says. While this is happening, my aunt is in the backyard, hanging clothes to dry. Me? I’m in one of the bedrooms, sleeping off a long night. My cousin left her little boy with my aunt — her mother — and we’re the only three in the room.

In my slumber, I hear a couple of cars drive up close to the house. This startles me because the street is usually very quiet, and the cars really made a lot of noise. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door. When they knock a second time, I get out of the bed and walk to the front door. Then I hear a third, very loud knock. When I opened the door, two police officers were standing about five meters from the door, pointing their guns at the door. It took a second for me to process the image.

“Come out, slowly,” the first cop said. I slowly raised my hands beside me and opened the screen door, then I stepped out. “Turn around and walk backward toward me,” he said. I did. When he told me to stop, I felt him grab my hands and slap on the handcuffs. “Is anyone else in the house?”
“Yes, my aunt and my little cousin,” I said.
“And no one else?”
“No one else,” I said just as my aunt came out the door.

My aunt explains to them that it was just us three in the house as two other officers who had just arrived join the second cop and walk into the house. One of them then comes out with my little cousin in his arms. “This little guy called 911,” they explain to us. “He was looking for his daddy.” As everyone nervously laughs, I kind of smile at the cop and then signal that I’m still handcuffed. “Oh, right,” he says, and then he takes them off.

In some other universe, I’m laying dead at the doorway. I’m sure.

As I look at Alice’s apartment along with the two cops, one of them turns around and walks off talking to his radio. He’s running my name through their database back at headquarters. They won’t find anything. I don’t even have an outstanding ticket, and I still don’t to this day. As he comes back and informs his partner that I’m “clean,” Alice pulls up with friends in a car, slowly stopping a few yards away. “And there she is,” I say.

An hour later, Alice and I are sitting on the sidewalk. She’s chewing gum loudly, and leaning her head against my shoulder, looking up at the sky. You can hardly see any stars because of the light pollution around us. “So you just decided to chase them and help that guy, huh?”
“Yeah, I know. I know. It was stupid.”
“Heroic, though. You’re quite the boy scout.”
“Stupid boy scout,” I tell her.

We sit there for a few more minutes before I tell her that I have to go. She kisses me on the cheek, and I’m on my way. After that, I didn’t see Alice as much as before. We kind of just drifted away, and I didn’t blame her. I left her behind in a dangerous city when I went chasing the group that was chasing the soldier. I could have gotten hurt, and she would not have known what happened. This pattern repeats itself every two to three years with other relationships until 2006.

I never saw Alice after moving out of El Paso.

It’s three in the morning on a night in August 2006, and I’m leaving the apartment of a certain young woman. There is a ticket on my windshield because I parked in a spot that gets cleaned overnight. It was for $50, but it was worth hanging out with her and watching Eddie Izzard while laughing and getting to know each other. By eleven that same morning, I’m across the street from her apartment, paying the ticket. A couple of days later, we’re out on another date, and then another… And then another.

Two weeks later, we’re on a couple of swings at a playground at a nearby park. “So you’re almost done?” she asks.
“Yeah, I just have to work on my capstone project.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. I look up at the clear blue sky and take a deep breath then let it out. “Save the world, I guess?”
She smiles and says, “Then it’s time to get going…”

We got going.

It’s not because it’s easy, that’s for sure

I just finished talking to my mom on the phone. I asked her how I was when I was a kid when it came to test-taking. She laughed. She said that I was just like my little sister is now. She said that I used to panic in the extreme when a test was coming up. It didn’t matter the test; I made a big, huge deal out of it.

I credit my really good GPA for my master’s degree to the fact that I really liked what I was learning and to the fact that there were no really “big” exams to speak of. Yes, there were midterms and finals, but there were also small quizzes and exams in between. There were also homework assignments, and those were worth cumulatively more than the exams. And the data analysis homework? Those were a breeze. I love digging into puzzles and looking for patterns.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if I just up and quit public health altogether. Academically, I’ve gone far above and beyond what was expected of me. (The assistant principal in my high school told me that I would be lucky to just graduate high school. He was sort of right. A ton of us don’t graduate from high school, but it’s getting better.) I could right now walk over to the local hospital, apply for a really good paying job in the laboratory, and get hired in a snap. So, professionally speaking, I’m in a good spot.

So why do I put myself through a doctoral program at the top university for public health in the world (THE WORLD!) and through the stress of exams and peer pressure from some of the most brilliant kids people that I’ve ever met? Why get low grades (not A’s) on exams that make me panic and have nightmares and not sleep well and such?

I know it’s cliché to say it, but it’s not because it’s the easy thing to do. If I took the path of least resistance in my life, I would have never left Juarez, Mexico. I would have married the first girl I dated. I would have taken a crappy job at the mall and stayed there all this time. I would have checked my ambition at the door and carried on like so many people seem to do.

Let me stop right now and clarify that there is nothing wrong with taking the path of least resistance. Some of the happiest people I’ve met have done so. Some of them are even successful in their careers. But it’s not for me. Even with all the drama and stress, I would much rather challenge myself and do something no one (or few people) would expect of me than just sit around and wait for things to happen. Very few people expect me to get a doctoral degree. Those that do are my parents, my siblings, my close friends, and my wife — all people who want the best for me and expect the best of me. Society at large, on the other hand, it could give a hoot what I do with my life so long as I don’t become a criminal.

So bring on the tough exams, even if I don’t ace them. Bring on the high expectations, even if I fall short of them. I’d rather try to do those things than just do things not worth doing.

This the end of my personal pep talk for today… On to studying.

Final exams, baseball, and “Fetus Jones”

When I was in high school, I was one of the student athletic trainers. We learned how to tape ankles and do basic first aid under the supervision of two actual kinesiologists. One of my assignments was to travel with the junior varsity baseball team. (I also traveled with the junior varsity girls basketball team and got my first kiss that way, but that story is best told later, over a cup of coffee, to a friend… In high school.) Anyway, the baseball team went to a tournament that gathered JV teams from all over the El Paso, Texas, region. They placed last.

Dead last. Continue reading

On falling and getting up

I stayed up last night watching videos on YouTube of people flying hang gliders. I envied them as they soared through the air like birds. They seemed so happy and relaxed. Me? I probably would be a little apprehensive about hang gliding off a 1,000-foot cliff. But then I found videos of people learning how to hang glide, and I was impressed to see that they are taught to hang glide off small hills, then larger hills, then cliffs. No one just grabs a hang glider and jumps off a precipice and expect to be okay at the end. Well, maybe they expect to be okay, but they probably won’t be okay.

Then I had a dream. It was an odd dream. In it, I was watching a comedy movie and criticizing it with my wife. We joked about how horrible the movie was and how the plot was full of holes. The movie was more of a slapstick fest than a thriller, to say the least. Suddenly, the director of the movie appeared on the screen. He was the hound director of a movie I had watched a few days ago. He talked about how bad his movie was, but then he got into the subplots and the meaning behind what we were seeing.

“You see people falling all the time because I wanted to show you how people are fallible. They all fall because they’re human, not because they’re stupid or slow-witted. The hero falls. The villain falls. The only difference is that the villain falls at the end and doesn’t get up. The hero keeps falling but always gets up.”

Then he turned to look at me through the television set. “You want to fly like Superman, but you keep backing off the cliff. So start with something lower, then move higher,” he said. “But know that you will fall. It’s up to you to get up or stay down.”

Other dreams came and went last night, but this one stuck because of the imagery and meaning in it. Isn’t it true that we all fall because we’re human? That’s how you know you’re human, because you make mistakes. Tell me of someone who was perfect, and I will show you a robot (and one not programmed by humans) or a deity. The rest of us have to deal with scraped knees, bruised egos, and shattered dreams.

The difference between all of us when it comes to falling is how we get up… And whether or not we do.