El Paso Avenue in downtown El Paso was lined with discount stores, and two years ago, it used to be the busiest street in the city. The border crossing from Juárez fed right into it, so there was a lot of foot traffic, people coming into the city to shop and work.
But now, of course, everything is closed, day and night, and there are no people, nobody but me, literally.
I guard the building of some rich asshole. I know it’s risky, but it’s good money, deposited directly into my account every day I work, and it allows me to live a life I imagine must be better than most people during this time.
So one day it was about 3 PM, extremely hot, dry, desert heat, and a windstorm came through town, which happened a lot in the desert mountains. Dust filled the air, so much so that you could barely see the tall hotel at the end of the street, just a vague shape, like a god overlooking the destruction.
That was when I saw her.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Olga Ortiz.
She was hauling a huge plastic bag over her shoulder, in spite of the heat, wearing a black, long sleeve shirt, heavy as a jacket, but she wasn’t sweating at all. She had her hair tied back.
When we were in high school, she loved her hair and it really was her best feature. She took a lot of pride in it. We dated twice our senior year, but on the second date, we weren’t feeling it, so there wasn’t a third. After that we didn’t have bad feelings for one another, we just didn’t think about each other, but if we saw each other somewhere we would say, Hey.
But there she was now, walking down the street, not even wearing a mask.
Obviously, when you’re walking a street as empty as this, you’re going to notice any sign of a person, and she noticed me under the awning, standing up, as I try to do most of the day.
Sitting down for eight hours is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
She stopped when she got directly across the street from me. She recognized me.
Hey, I said.
I’d come closer and give you a hug, she said but, you know, I guess I don’t wanna die. She stayed on her side of the avenue, so we had to talk kind of loud.
Me either, I said. But it’s nice to see you.
Are you alone? she asked.
I’m the only one that works this street, for the rich asshole that owns this building.
She looked up at the building I was guarding, an original art-deco design of some famous architect that had been painted like the face of a clown.
I mean are you alone alone?
Oh, yeah. You?
She put down her bag, rested her shoulders.
You’re looking pretty strong, I said.
Got to be, she said.
You live around here?
No, the other side of the mountain. I just come here looking for things.
That’s brave, I said.
So is watching the building of some rich asshole, she said.
I was about to have lunch, I said. Do you want to join me?
Ok, she said, and she sat against the wall. Out of her big bag she pulled out a small bag, opened it, and started to unwrap a sandwich.
She also pulled out little sandwich bag with what could’ve been cheese puffs or baby carrots, and she started eating those.
Wish I could offer you one, she said, holding up the bag.
And I wish I could share my hummus, I said, holding up a little tub.
After as much as an hour, which is a long time to be in one place in the desert heat, even if you are in the shade, she stood up, said she had to move on.
I guess we’ll never see each other again, she said, as she was lifting her huge sack. I knew she was right.
Suddenly she put her sack back down on the sidewalk, like she had forgotten something. Then she reached for the back of her hair and undid the rubber band that held it in a ponytail.
She let her hair down, moved it around with some shakes of her head, as if giving it air, and it swirled like a black dress on a dancer. Then she tied it back up again.
You still have beautiful hair, I said.
The next day, I knew it was ridiculous, but I imagined somebody else from my past came down that avenue. First I imagined my daughter. She would be so excited to see me, jumping up and down on the other side of the street. She would know she couldn’t cross, that we couldn’t be close or one of us would die.
And then I pictured all my dead walking down that street, as if coming out of Juárez, my parents, cousins, good friends, and then random people I remembered from before, the girl that used to work in the panaderia across the street from my apartment. I remembered so many people from my past, that El Paso Street became busy again, at least in my imagination. I had conversations all day, just like the one I had with Olga.