This Tuesday brings us a story that straddles the US-Mexico border. In Mónica Lavín’s “English Lessons,” a Mexican woman travels to San Diego for an all-too-brief reunion with her brother. Her notions of America, a “better world” glimpsed in the Dick and Jane stories from her childhood, are upended in an unexpected, heartrending manner.
Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought. A sense of well-being settled in her chest when she crossed the border. It was like entering a story, a fiction, proof that a better world existed. Like the world her first grade English books had shown: the house with a garden, the family with a dog named Spot and a cat called Puff. Sally, Dick and Jane played with a “red wagon.” “Red” was rojo, “wagon” carretilla? She’d never seen one except in the color illustrations of those books. The mother called them in to dinner, with her styled hair, her big smile and an apron over her full-skirted dress. Not that Patricia wasn’t critical of many things about the gringo lifestyle—their detachment from family life and excessive practicality, their sense of being the center of the world. But in her experience, U.S. highways had no potholes, there were fewer rattletrap cars, and San Diego’s landscaped roundabouts were a pleasure to see. She suspected her idea was childish, so it was a conception she didn’t dare confess. Certainly, after standing in the tedious line, and feeling like a convict when the guard took her papers and examined her, knowing she was safely “on the other side” made her breathe more calmly. She anticipated enjoying this trip especially because she’d visit her friend Laura in California, and her brother Daniel was also coming to San Diego for two days. They hadn’t planned it, but it was a happy coincidence. He lived in Guadalajara, further from the border, loved and knew San Diego. He’d promised to take her for a drink at the Hyatt at sundown to see the bay. And she would accompany him on his mission to buy household goods: sheets, towels, kitchen things, placemats for his bachelor breakfast table. She liked his attitude, how he was determined to make a pleasant abode for himself, treating it as a new project to be enthusiastic about, instead of being depressed by his divorce.