I’d put on Joni’s “Last Time I Saw Richard,” like I did whenever I thought about the last time I saw Richard. Tucson, ’99: we drank and threw handfuls of desert at the night’s carpet of tarantulas, seething under a full moon. “Richard,” I said, like I’d already left, “if you don’t want to die—your soul, I mean—you can’t stay here.” I held the bottle cinematically, acting more drunk than I was. Two freshly adult boys could talk to each other if they were drunk. We could reach that pageantry where what we meant was no longer embarrassing but part of the script. “Richard, I love you, but there’s a life waiting out there for me to live.” The song ended and I played it again, just to see how perfect I could make this memory.
From what I saw online, Richard stayed in Tucson and dropped out of college when he met and married his wife, Christine. He had two boys and managed a bank. He gained weight. From what he could see, I had moved to New York, graduated from Columbia, and pursued photography. I think he assumed, thanks to my Instagram following (328,000+), that I was successful. He was surprised, seventeen years later, when I moved in with his parents.
My dad had left early and my mother died when I was sixteen. She’d been more of an aunt, anyway—someone who gave you chocolate or bourbon or R-rated movies when she wasn’t supposed to. Richard’s parents had always parented me right alongside him. They’d retired and bought a ranch outside of Nogales, where Richard’s father, Rich, had decided to raise cattle. All these years later, they gave me a room on the lower floor and paid to help furnish it.
That morning, Richard would drive down from Tucson, and our night in the desert would no longer be the last time I saw him. I don’t know why this meant so much to me. I think I was afraid of collapsing time, of seeing how quickly things like years could be erased. Which one of us, I thought, would have tombs in his eyes? I played the song again and drank too much coffee, watching the sunrise spill out toward Mexico. The land was something I hadn’t realized I’d missed. Here was a place where thoughts had pastures to run and washes to leap, instead of the same old two rivers in which they used to drown.
Nothing had changed except my ability to bear it. At Denny’s, I told Richard how every afternoon I sank beneath Manhattan and resurfaced in Bushwick, where my roommate (she was forty-one; I was thirty-five) was baking pasta, and my cat (age seventeen) was watching the cockroaches beneath the radiator. I told Richard about the radiator. It knocked and pinged so badly that my ex, when she passed through town and crashed on our couch, was convinced that the woman upstairs (age seventy-three) had spent the night tapping the pipes with a hammer. The waitress came and poured me a sixth or seventh cup. “It no longer seemed like my life,” I said. The way Richard winced told me I must have shouted, and I tried to keep myself inside myself, to imagine that I was a normal person whose flesh was his boundary. “Anyway,” I whispered, “how have you been?”
Presumably, he told me.
I’d driven, I told Richard, all the way from New York. It was my privilege to see the “real America” you hear so much about. Its earnestness in everything it did was hard to criticize, even admirable. At truckstops I had pancakes and at gas stations I bought cheap, watery coffee that made me miss something I couldn’t identify. And then there was rust and chimney smoke; gardens of trash along the roadside; billboards for guns, fetal heartbeats, plastic surgery, malevolent taxes, fried food; lattices of creosote shadows; signs for soda, pie, lottery tickets, lap dancers, gasoline, presidents and congressmen, churches, and landmarks; the long-necked bowing of oil wells against the horizon, like herons drinking from a lake; the fused and graffitied ribs of grain elevators: this pulse and breath of everything I’d long thought was dead. I drove through towns where you could only ask, Who lives here? and I saw who lived there. I posted so many photographs. Though I was alone on my trip, I felt like I traveled with all those followers who commented, who saw not what I was seeing but a version I wanted them to see. Throughout my entire career, “street photography” had meant New York’s inventory of squashed roaches, panhandlers, stains, dead birds, iconoclasts, and millionaires. It turns out there are other streets and other people. All of this I would try, once we got drunk, to explain to Richard, who I knew, when drunk, would finally understand and tell me how much he missed conversations like these. “We should go get a drink,” I said as we left the restaurant. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and I could tell it excited him. He canceled his other plans.
“Dave,” he said, “you haven’t changed. I always liked how you lived. That’s what you did.” He’d taken us to a margarita bar where decades of outlawed cigarette smoke still lived in the wallpaper. Except for a table of old men and their oxygen tanks, we were alone. “If my wife,” Richard began, and he downed the rest of his second drink. I had the feeling she wouldn’t care.
“You ever drive up to Ruby?” I asked. Ruby was a ghost town in the Pajaritos where every high school kid in Tucson had gone to drink, fuck, and get high.
“It’s a tourist thing now,” he said. “With gates and admission. All those poor new kids. But they have apps now or whatever, ways to get organized and keep secrets we never dreamed of having. But Ruby’s toast. Just for old people and their families.”
“Aren’t we old? We should go sometime. Bring Christine and the boys.”
Richard ran his finger around the rim of his glass. It didn’t sing like he wanted it to, but he kept trying. He looked up at me, eerily awake. “Let’s go now.”
“But you’re drunk.” I left more than enough cash on the table as we stood. “We’re drunk.”
“I’ll have you know,” Richard said, “that I’m quite good at driving drunk. You get a handle on it, after a while, and no one even notices.” He made as if to straighten a tie he wasn’t wearing, and then he cackled like an old woman, as if this was the funniest thing he’d said in years. I cracked a smile and the old men wheezed with memories of their own. And so we stepped out into Nogales where the sun hurt our eyes and the border fence, covered in graffiti, stretched vanishingly far in both directions. I still wasn’t used to this. I still expected, stepping out of darkness, to find New York’s cabs and shadows and walkers and weather, not this sun and dust. There was pain in all parts of the world—don’t get me wrong—and there was nothing you could do, anywhere, to look away from it, but wherever you go, there’s a new kind of pain. You’ll actually see it, then, and I was still seeing it. Pain was everywhere.
That year, you’ll remember, was a divisive election year. Driving into the Pajaritos Mountains, we didn’t yet know the extent of what was going to happen. We still assumed that our candidate was going to win. By then, American politics had long shredded itself. American life had shredded itself. Once the election was over, the extremists were supposed to disappear. Make America safe again, I liked to joke. But soon it would no longer be funny. It would be nothing but terror. Millions of our neighbors would soon sacrifice the poor, the black and the brown, the queer, the asylum-seeking, the compassionate and empathetic, and the artistic, all because, so the newspapers said, they’d “been forgotten.” Even worse, it would be these people—Richard’s wife among them, I found out—with whom we’d have to live afterward, as though it was only “just politics.” It was these people we were expected to treat like people and not like dangerous, cornered animals.
But back then, that autumn, there was no way she could lose.
This came up on the drive to Ruby, or where we remembered Ruby being. From the higher elevations you could see the border fence stretching out from Nogales into the desert. Out there it felt less like a precaution and more like a deliberate scarring of the landscape. “No one believes in the wall,” Richard slurred. “Nobody who knows any better. Even my wife—can you believe she’s voting for him?—thinks the wall is stupid, a waste of money. But she supports him, all the same.” He laughed and looked carefully at the road.
The backs of his hands were bright red, as if sunburned. A vein in his forearm bulged threateningly out. “That’s tough,” I said.
They’d fought over it. They’d explicitly warned each other not to involve the boys. In public, neither would speak of it—that was their agreement. “That’s tough,” I said again. Richard shrugged and turned onto another road. Like the last, it didn’t seem to have a name. Neither of us had cell service, and Richard kept no maps in his car. I took a few pictures while we drove. Still no service; I wasn’t used to not being able to post my work immediately. It ate away at me like a secret. “I forgot,” I said, “how beautiful it is out here.”
“You didn’t forget.”
The Pajaritos aren’t much, as far as mountains go, but they are high enough and numerous enough, fed by so many arterial creeks and washes, bled by so many veins of private dirt roads, that even locals, on day hikes, sometimes died. We were lost. Richard would never admit this, and he turned onto one road after another. We were still drunk. We were so drunk. At one point when I aimed my camera at the desert, I noticed that all was golden. “It’s getting late,” I said. He pulled over next to a tank—one of the natural crescents of rock and sagebrush where water pooled after it rained. There was no water. He shut off the engine. His eyes looked as though they might bleed spontaneously, and he gestured at the glove compartment. I opened it and he retrieved a flask, ostensibly for emotional emergencies like these. “Richard,” I said, but he slipped the flask into his shirt pocket and stepped out of the car. I followed.
The buttes, the bleached skeleton of a mesquite tree, the rock and rust of the earth: We could have been anywhere in southern Arizona. Richard sat down on the side of the road. Out there was a gorge, the paints of it washing away toward Mexico, and that stupid fence. Even out here it was covered in graffiti: gang tags, cartoon dicks, and a hundred “so-and-so loves so-and-so” acts of chivalry, but revised, all by one nihilistic person, to say “so-and-so loved so-and-so.” I sat down next to Richard. We each took a drink. I thought, If we stay here and the moon is full, the desert will come alive. It’s a true phenomenon, the way tarantulas migrate under the moon, so many of them there’s no place to step, no place to cross. No one believed me, when I told this story. No one ever believed me. “Look at that,” I said, about nothing in particular. Richard put his face in his hands and wept. It made it easy, the way he hid his grief, to photograph him in secret. Richard had never accepted comfort, so there was nothing I could do until he was done, until he’d purged what he’d needed to purge and found, once more, that perfect place along the continuum of intoxication where everything was fun again, and nothing, not even death or the deepest betrayal, could be taken seriously.
“Christine,” he said, like it was a word he’d just learned. He laughed and knocked back the rest of his bourbon. “Jesus fuck. Let’s get out of here, if we can.” We could. We caught glimpses of the fence now and then as Richard drove, making sure it stayed to our right. Richard’s flask was still in his pocket. He drove as though trying to waltz with his car. His breath he couldn’t hide from anyone, and so when the state patrol pulled him over, I was sure we were finished; I was sure he’d never forgive me for letting this happen, for dragging him up into the Pajaritos in search of a youth that neither of us could prove had ever existed. But the officer, once he walked up to the car, only nodded as he peered through the window. He only said, “Evening,” as he glanced first into Richard’s eyes, and then into mine, before he walked back to his car, passed us on the left, and gave a tip of his hat as he drove back toward town, ahead of us.
“We’re white,” Richard explained.
In 1994, Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer for his photograph of a young girl in Sudan. In the foreground, the girl is collapsed. She rests on her elbows and leans back into her legs, crouched low to the earth, her forehead to the ground as if in prayer or meditation. Her trunk is familiarly distended, her wilted limbs like dandelion stems. Only a few meters behind her, a vulture waits among the dirt and dead grass. The image became an instant symbol for famine. Upon its publication, the newspaper received letters from hundreds of readers. What happened to the girl? Why hadn’t the photographer intervened? Despite Carter’s insistence that the armed Sudanese soldiers had warned him never to intervene, any contact with Carter could have put the girl at even greater risk from the simplest diseases; the common cold could have been a death sentence. But Carter, to the public, was inhuman, capitalistic, a ghoul. He had, indeed, made his entire career documenting death. Born in South Africa, his earliest pictures show the ongoing genocide against black Africans, including the first-ever photograph of execution by “necklacing,” or filling a tire with burning oil and draping it over a man’s, woman’s, or child’s neck. Four months after receiving the Pulitzer, Carter committed suicide, no longer wishing, it seems, to see.
Personally, I’d always thought that seeing death would be a humanizing experience. Perhaps, after everything, it was. New York is a city of eight and a half million people, more than the entire state of Arizona. Every year, approximately fifty-five thousand of its citizens die. In all my years of walking its streets and taking photographs and, later, uploading them to social media, not once did I see death. I never quite found the vocabulary to express how strange I thought this was. America itself is a deathless nation. The myth here is that we do not age. The myth dictates that the seasons, the weather, or low points in our lives are not supposed to affect us; nature itself is resisted. They say America is always losing its innocence: Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11. It never stays lost. It’s easy for the innocent to commit a crime; it’s not so easy for the conscientious. Make America forget again.
Photographs have the power to destabilize this myth of innocence, to muddy the way death is cleansed from our lives. Photographs of murder victims in newspapers, security footage of carnage, of slaughter: these complicate America’s Peter Pan propaganda. The cliché says: No one has yet cheated death, and maybe the truth is we don’t want to. I used to think people slowed for car accidents to enjoy a kind of schadenfreude—At least it wasn’t me—but I’ve since wondered if, instead, a corpse is a dark comfort. Only an idiot wants to live forever. Witnessing death might be a granted wish, a wish to reconcile oneself with an exhausting natural world impossible to dominate. One day we can stop pretending, death says, and rest.
The last time I saw Richard, behind the wheel of his car, I began to worry that nothing would turn out for us as planned or intended. There was dust on his collar. His eyes seemed moth-eaten. I saw the carcass of his soul chewed and scavenged. I opened my mouth, but there was nothing I’d prepared myself to say. Richard nodded, which I took as my cue to step away. He didn’t kill himself until much later, but I imagined that’s what he was driving off to do.
At the ranch, Rich needed my help. I was happy to help. It was so dreamlike, that evening, for us to mount the twin Appaloosas he and Marilyn had raised from the day they’d been foaled. That afternoon, one of the heifers hadn’t returned from pasture. Rich assumed she was either dead (snakebit) or out calving someplace in the dust. “Or,” he ventured, “just plain stubborn.”
Rich and Marilyn lived quite close to the border, except here there was no wall—only a sparse tangle of barbed wire that, on evenings like these, vanished into the creosote. I took pictures. I lived for light like this. When the moment presented itself, I took and posted a selfie, sure to get my mount Snow in the frame beneath me. Living in New York, no one believed how, in my teens, I’d learned to ride a horse.
Did I miss New York? Only an idiot doesn’t miss New York. Did I feel oneness there, or peace? Never. With an increasing sincerity, I believed that human beings—creatures, after all—were much closer to peace in someplace like this than in a metropolis. Civilization is a thing to be celebrated, but so too should our connection to dirt, roots, soil, leaves, sage, scent, wind, dust, bark, thorn, rain, rock, and, above all, light, be our greatest cause for celebration. And it was perhaps what I’d always done: a worshipping, a spirituality, of light and the rest, by which I suppose I mean light and death, because that was the subtext you had to accept. All my life I’d met people for whom the desert had meant this. It’s a place where even the secular are able to meet, understand, and love what only the word God, in our language, has captured.
“Let’s try Bull Spring,” Rich said, and gestured with his chin. When we met the horizon, there was another, and another after that. There was no sign of the rogue cow. The deepening beauty and the coyotes yipping over the hills told me it wouldn’t be long until it was too late, and with a sigh he gripped his reins and looked back toward the ranch. “I’m sorry,” he told me, as though this wasn’t one of the greatest nights of my life. We began the climb out of the tank, where we could follow the spines of the hills, for better light, before it was too dark and too dangerous to get home. That’s when we found the body.
This was not exactly unprecedented—nor even, for Rich, a shock. “What time you got?” he asked me, but all I could see, all I could look at, was the boy in the dirt. I’d guess he was ten, or maybe older and underfed. It couldn’t have been that long ago that he was alive. Behind me I heard Rich take his notebook out of his shirt and uncap the pen he kept rolled up inside of it. “I know it’s awful.” His voice shot out from the dark itself, like the bats that were just now dripping from the mouths of nearby caves and arcing across the sky, and that would feed, undoubtedly, on this boy’s blood before it thickened and soured and clotted into crust. Flies drank from between the flakes on his lips, and something flicked in the corner of his eye. But Rich was still with me. Life was still here, if I chose to look away. “This happens once in a while. You find them like this, trying to cross. We don’t move him, at least not out here. Sometimes, closer to the ranch, they ask you to haul them into town, in the truck bed. But not out here.” I heard his pen scratching against the notebook—the time of discovery, I learned later, as well as the coordinates, the condition of the body, the assumed time of death, the circumstances under which we’d found him. The boy’s body seemed halfway fetal, as though he’d turned away from something. “Let’s move on,” Rich said, and it was his mount Frost’s hooves on the rock that broke the spell I’d cast upon myself. I shook my head. I closed my eyes. I heard myself humming to keep death at bay. But before we left—before we abandoned this boy to the cold and the dark, where he’d have no one to comfort him or cover him or whisper how he was safe, now, across the border—I did what I knew I’d have to do. I took the opportunity I’d been waiting for. “That will help a lot, actually,” Rich said as he heard the artificial chirp of the shutter, as my phone captured the extent of death itself, an indisputable (I thought) image.
When we got back to the ranch and Rich called the sheriff in Nogales, I made that image public.
So now you know who I am, and why, in this version of events, I’ve chosen to call myself “Dave.” The thing about viral fame is that, quite quickly, it drives you away from using your real name, especially in such contentious times.
Suffice it to say, I was unprepared. For the hatred and adoration; for the death threats; for the offer from three national newspapers to publish the photograph; for interviews both printed and televised; for the unavoidable decision to delete my presence on Instagram; for the boy’s reference, as a talking point, during the final presidential debate of that year; for the sheer, unrestrained enthusiasm on both sides of the political spectrum, those whose instinct was to worship and those who called me cunt and fag, tool, and, above all, liar.
Perhaps this is a distrust borne from retouched photographs, filters, and computer-generated imagery: people no longer believe their own eyes. That the photograph was real—that the boy’s corpse was real—and that it showed, in clear detail, his death in the desert; that it unraveled his entire narrative and, by extension, the larger political narrative of immigration’s role in American life: all of this meant nothing. No matter how many times the journalists confirmed it with local authorities, reality meant nothing. And for that I was accused of further dividing an already divided nation with my own agenda. Death had become politically unpopular.
Despite brief trips to New York, LA, and DC, I stayed with Rich and Marilyn. In the mornings, I drank my coffee and tried to remember the beauty in the desert. We called the sheriff whenever someone snuck onto the property. When the morning or evening light asked me to, I took pictures and saved them privately. I helped Marilyn in the kitchen. She told me how good I’d looked or how smart I’d sounded in this or that interview. I reported each death threat to the authorities and drank every night, before bed.
Thankfully, the land was still out there and the sun still swept over it every morning and there were still mourning doves, ravens, rattlesnakes, gila monsters, killdeer, javelina, swallows and swifts, bats, vultures, owls, quail, raccoons, hummingbirds, and coyotes, each of whom called it, ecstatically, loudly, singularly, home.
I’d never thought of myself as someone who got lonely. I looked out of windows, wanting something to happen. I imagined phone calls from people who knew me in other lives. You can imagine how I felt, then, when I saw Richard’s SUV creeping its way up the long driveway at the ranch, one Saturday. I went outside to meet him, my hands in my pockets so I wouldn’t wave like a child. But it wasn’t Richard.
We introduced ourselves, and I said I hoped everything, meaning Richard, was okay. Christine apologized instead of answering—“Sorry,” with what wasn’t quite a laugh—and invited me for coffee in Nogales. I was too desperate to refuse. It was a short drive—a half-hour if you speed, which everyone did—but there was something twitchy about her. She couldn’t let one song play all the way through. Her skirt, her reflective sunglasses, the plastic jewels along her belt: in the same way that Richard had always dressed like an older man (golf shirts, khakis), Christine dressed like a younger woman. From Facebook I knew she was an accounts manager at an insurance company. I didn’t know how much she knew about me, and I didn’t want to ask.
She parked at a corporate coffee chain. Inside, everything was pristinely rustic: leather chairs, moose antlers, wood veneer on the walls, and a fireplace that, somehow, gave off no heat. It was 87 degrees outside. I thought Richard must be sick or facing criminal charges. I thought they must need my help, meaning money. She ordered a white chocolate mocha and kept removing and replacing the lid, just to peek at the foam and froth.
And then she threatened me.
“I know about that photo you took. Of the alleged dead boy.” Finally she sipped her coffee, a punctuational slurp, and then stared. I wasn’t stupid, and already the confidence in her eyes began to break. “I know how the media is using it, how it’s supposed to make us feel bad for illegals. That’s so dishonest. It’s deceitful to manipulate people like that. Some people actually lose their children, and it’s horrible.”
I tried not to laugh at her. She was, after all, my ride back to the ranch. “So you don’t think it’s a photograph of an actual body? You think it’s in some way a forgery, or just fake?”
She pointed at me, or maybe at what were supposed to be my words as they left my mouth. “See? I knew it was fake. You can do absolutely anything with Photoshop.”
“It’s not fake.”
“You just admitted it.”
“No.” I sat up straight. So far I hadn’t touched my coffee, and now I didn’t intend to. “I asked you a question. Do you, Christine Lambert, think it’s a fake photo?”
She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. I watched it collapse onto her shoulders. “Maybe it’s not your fault, exactly, but of course it’s fake. That wasn’t a real boy, or if it was he’d been dumped there by the cartels. They round up sick people all the time, and when they die, they dump them along the border to trick people like you. You can read about all of this, if you actually want to know the truth.”
What do they die of? I wanted to know. Why are the cartels involved? What am I supposed to feel, as a tricked person? I laughed and said, “Why the fuck are you here?”
Christine rolled her eyes and heaved out a sigh; the more she hated you, the more theatrical she became. “I’m here because America deserves the truth. It’s because of lies like this and people like you that we’ve lost touch with our values.”
“Funny how you don’t consider my values to be of any value.”
Now it was her turn to laugh, and I hated how much it made me want to choke her, to inflict real pain. “Dave,” she said, “don’t lie to yourself. Besides, you’re changing the subject. This is about real America, not elites and parasites.”
There was only one other patron in the coffee shop—an older man whose lips moved as he read his newspaper. Why had I allowed myself to be trapped? Why hadn’t I known the extent of Christine’s indoctrination? There was nothing you could say to a person like this. There was nothing you could do to change her mind.
“I need you to admit the photo is fake,” she told me.
“It’s not fake. That boy was real. Ask Rich if you don’t believe me.”
She lowered her voice. “You don’t understand. You need to admit it, publicly. I’ve been . . . I’ve been in touch with this reporter, and he’s been very curious about you. About your past.”
I flinched at that. “My past?” I laughed and shook my head. “What past? There’s nothing—there’s not—” I laughed again, approaching hysteria. But this was what happened when the world’s rules crumbled around you.
I looked down at the table and tried to calculate what she was getting at. I’d never committed a crime. I’d never sent a dick pic to anyone I didn’t trust. I didn’t enjoy porn I’d be ashamed for the world to see. I thought of the women I’d had sex with, over the years, and couldn’t for the life of me think of anyone who might have called what we’d done rape or assault.
This had to be nothing but a bluff, and I pushed myself away from the table. I thanked her for the coffee, still untouched, and left it behind with her at the table. Without much of a plan I walked out into the sun. That same margarita bar was right across the street, and it was there that I waited for Marilyn to come pick me up. “Oh, Christine,” she sighed over the phone while I began to get drunk, eschewing margaritas for shots of the shittiest tequila they had. Marilyn promised she’d be right there. There was nothing, we agreed without words, you could do with someone like Christine, poisoned to her core.
As I said, this was all before America elected a fascist bigot who, slowly and sloppily, lived up to all of his threats, no matter how crazy, no matter how laughable he once appeared.
I’ve since thought extensively about fascism. I’ve thought about how there must be a point—so incredibly exhausted by having to make decisions; by having to pretend there’s still a chance to live a healthy, happy life; and by pretending, at every moment, that death is unnatural and even avoidable—where you finally give up and long to be told what to do. There must be a point at which, so driven into the dirt by the glamour of wealth you’ll never attain, you desire only to surrender your will altogether. It’s so much easier than admitting just how badly you’ve played right into the hands of the people who’ve engineered you to be exactly what you are: poor, sick, tired, stupid, and full of so much longing you’ll fall in love with the first candidate who says, “Let’s give your suffering to someone else.” But how do you convince someone so broken that they don’t have it so bad, that there are others out there whose lives are incomprehensibly shattered?
I’ve always thought of myself as a good person. This was the basis for my belief that someone like Christine—flighty, ignorant—couldn’t touch me. But I’d forgotten how many people misunderstood my relationship with my mother.
It was this that Christine shared with the ravenous, creaturely reporter. There she was, only a week before the election, telling the world how I refused to see my dying mother in the hospital. How, she wondered, fictional tears in those beautiful eyes, could a person pretend to care so much about the “death” (and here she made quotes with her fingers) of a Mexican boy when that same person threw his mother in the trash? She shut her eyes. “It’s just so heartbreaking,” she told the reporter, who thanked her, who called her brave for speaking out, and from there the truth no longer had a chance. The boy, their news sources said, was a staged photograph used to keep the borders frightening and porous, to keep the “illegals” and the drugs flowing in, while the American dream, they said, bled out. And there was nothing I could say.
I had, in fact, refused to see my mother. The sight of her would have shown me the unequivocal fact of her death, and it wasn’t what I’d wanted to believe. It made me angry that Christine had exploited my mother’s life like this, but it made me angrier that there was nothing I could do to refute it, to defend what I thought was the truth. A week later, we lost. All of us lost.
After that encounter with Christine, halfway drunk as Marilyn drove me through the reddening, purpling, blueing desert of southern Arizona—where I used to feel grounded, even spiritual, but where now I see a landscape awaiting exploitation and destruction—I wanted nothing more than to gossip with Marilyn and dig up every last embarrassing thing from Christine’s past. But instead I thought about the distance in the dead boy’s eyes, how the desert, right now, could be hiding another dead child, or a thousand. I thought of how much the image of death made people afraid. “How many,” I began. I hoped I didn’t sound too drunk. “How many kids has Christine had?”
Marilyn looked at me. Though older than me, she spent even more time online than I did, sharing pictures of cats and taking personality quizzes. She saw the same posts and photos from her son that I saw. “Well, there’s the two boys, of course—Ricky and Ryan.” She turned back to the road. “But there was also the girl, a long time ago. Rosie Christina.”
There were, as we both knew, no photographs of Rosie Christina. There was no proof that could make the rest of us believe.
I couldn’t stay in Nogales, nor go back to New York. It’s easier, where I am now, to mourn a country I never quite realized not only how much I loved, but how much I’d long protected myself from understanding. Every time I visit—for interviews, for assignments, for Richard’s funeral—nothing resembles its copy in my memory. Even the horizon—as I learned when I last sat on that back balcony, drinking my coffee and thinking of the last time I saw Richard—is not the same. There is no more seeing—only remembering—what’s out there beyond the wall.