When I’m let out of school, Juan Carlos is waiting for me beside his black Toyota Corolla.
The tires, sides and bumper are dusted with pale brown dirt even though the road up to Reina Isabel is paved. He must have driven Papá to view some properties en el campo. As I climb down the stairs, I wave goodbye to Erica and Georgie, two girls from my small clique of friends, still waiting for their parents to pick them up.
“Leticia!” Juan Carlos says brightly, opening the door to the backseat. “How was school?” His craggy brown face turns up in a smile, though his eyes remain hidden behind square, black sunglasses. He wears black dress pants, a blue collared shirt and a leather jacket. On his hip is his gun in its holster.
“Hola, Juan Carlos,” I reply, pulling my backpack off over my head. It has one large strap as wide as my palm that is meant to only go over one shoulder. Maestra Perez gave it to me for my sixth birthday. “It was okay.” I hand my backpack to Juan Carlos so I can climb into the backseat unencumbered. He places it beside me before closing the door.
“Just okay?” Juan Carlos asks as he takes a seat in front and starts the car. The radio flicks on, tuned to a station playing música norteña at low volume. “Don’t forget your seatbelt,” he says, pulling out of the parking lot.
I shrug. “It rained at recess.”
You wouldn’t think it now. While I can’t see too well through the Corrola’s tinted windows, the sun is high and bright in a pale blue sky, marred only by a few scattered wisps of clouds. The heat will likely bring a new wave of fog rolling in off the ocean, making tomorrow morning another gloomy, gray drive to school. I’m hot now in Juan Carlos’ all-black car, and I struggle for a minute to pull off my thick yellow uniform sweater.
“Rain’s good for the land,” Juan Carlos says. “You don’t want to live in a desierto do you?” I admit that I don’t.
The curving road we take down the hill from Reina Isabel is lush and green on all sides, the tiled roofs of homes peeking out from behind palm trees and tall bugambilia hedges. We pause at the security booth at the base of the hill where the guardia inside waves to Juan Carlos and lifts the boom gate for us to pass.
We exit onto the highway, made up of two lanes on either side of a continuous concrete barricade. On our side, driving south, we have the barricade on our left and a sheer drop into the ocean on our right. There is a shiny aluminum guardrail preventing us from immediately plummeting to our deaths, but Juan Carlos always drives so fast that it blurs until seemingly vanishing altogether. The road hugs the cliffside, following every curve and bend, and I get carsick easily so I can’t take out a book to read or even look down at my lap to distract myself. At least my uninhibited view of the pale, choppy waves and vast horizon is interrupted by the steep bluffs that rise up on either side of us, lousy with loose stones that threaten to dislodge and crack the passing windshields of cars. There are warning signs, but nothing can be done to prevent the damage.
Juan Carlos’ Nextel walkie-talkie crackles with an incoming call a few minutes into our drive. Under the radio and rumble of the road, the message is garbled to my ears. “10-4,” he responds before clipping his phone back onto his belt. He looks at me over his shoulder. “Looks like we’re meeting your abuelo and your papá en la Azteca,” Juan Carlos says as the road moves away from the cliffs, turning inland.
While the land spreads out before us, a coarse tapestry of brown and gray, the ocean never goes far, a constant pale strip that encompasses the entirety of the flat horizon. On our right-side condos appear in various stages of construction. One of them is a burnt out husk that caught fire about a year ago and nobody has touched since. On our left side are rolling hills of dirt and brown grass, until the dairy farm and its brief, overwhelming stench of cow manure breaks up the monotony. The dairy farm is where Rosarito begins, and Oxxos appear in conjunction with sloping, square homes packed close together and on top of each other as the land moves up and down beneath them. More businesses appear, supermarkets and gas stations and small tiendas that blur by. The billboards start here too, cumbersome and looming, taller than any of the buildings below them. Some of them are political, though all I can make out are their logos: the colors of the Mexican flag for the PRI party and the tucán of el partido Verde. Most are advertisements for casinos, RE/MAX Baja Realty, Papas and Beer, and the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Twenty minutes after leaving Reina Isabel, we drive under the adobe archway that welcomes you to Rosarito in big, red painted letters. Upon passing by a few homes and a tiny strip mall, we emerge on the main drag. Made up of wide streets, it’s lined on either side by taquerias and pharmacies and hotels. The sidewalks are dotted with vendors selling cheap souvenirs.
We’re on main street for less than a minute before we pass under a whitewashed archway ten times the size of the one that took us off the highway. Rosarito Beach Hotel, it reads in tall red letters. The base of the arch is lined with blue and gold talavera tiles. Beyond the archway is a road lined by palm trees with half their trunks painted white and wrapped with lights, deactivated in the day. We pause briefly at the ticket booth, but the attendant recognizes Juan Carlos as Papá’s guardia and lets him go through for free.
Juan Carlos parks in front of the entrance to the hotel, beside one of the square concrete planters filled with little round cacti covered in needle-like spines. The hotel facade is whitewashed as well, and the roof is adorned with terracotta tiles. Juan Carlos opens my door for me, and I clamber out with my backpack in hand. We walk into the hotel lobby together, passing beneath the stained-glass window depicting a beautiful woman lounging under a serape and sombrero beneath a depiction of the hotel archway we’d just passed through. On the wooden beam under the stained-glass white words have been painted: Por esta puerta pasan las mujeres mas hermosas del mundo.
The lobby itself is spacious, the wooden ceiling arching more than two dozen feet over my head. There are couches organized at the base of an expansive mural of a lake and its jungle shore, a fisherman and a washerwoman. But the couches are empty today, as is the rest of the lobby, save for the woman behind the long concierge desk. In the middle of October, tourists don’t exactly flock to our frigid beaches.
By the front desk is a large curving staircase leading to the second floor of the lobby where the managerial offices are. At the foot of the stairs are two bellhops in burgundy uniforms, Guillermo and Felipe, lounging by their luggage carts. I once tried to ride in one of the carts like they do on Suite Life of Zack & Cody, but Mamá only let me sit in it for a few minutes instead.
“Cómo estás, Leti,” Felipe says affably, looking away from his conversation with Guillermo. “Are you just getting in from school?”
“I’m okay. I’m meeting my abuelo en la Azteca,” I respond, pointing forward.
He waves us ahead. “Well then, don’t want to keep him waiting. Buen provecho!”
Juan Carlos and I continue forward to the circular entrance of la Azteca, where a slight decline propels us into the expansive, empty restaurant. Dozens of tables, dressed in tablecloths of yellow and orange, sit vacantly among adobe pillars that go all the way up to the distant ceiling. Separated from the wide expanse of the restaurant by a low wall and the intricate iron fence above it is the bar, a half-oval jutting out of the wall surrounded by chairs. A fútbol game is playing on low volume, and the bartender is chatting with the cashier.
We descend three short steps to where there are more tables set up beneath a row of windows that make up the entire wall. On the other side of the glass is a brick walkway and a garden, and beyond that a long rectangular pool covered in a mesh tarp. There are diners on this side of the restaurant: a trio of men in suits, an elderly couple, all of them speaking quietly in the great echoing expanse that comes with emptiness.
Sitting at a table well apart from the hotel guests is Abuelito, a thin man in a tweed suit with glasses that take up a third of his face. He has a plate of what might have been a fish fillet pushed to the side and a leather portfolio open in front of him. Two tables away is Lázaro, one of his guardaespaldas, who only glances up at my approach but stands and greets Juan Carlos with a grin and a handshake.
“Hola, Abuelito,” I say, standing on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.
“Ah, hola, Leti,” he exclaims in the raspy tone of voice that makes him sound surprised whenever we meet. “Sit, sit. I’m still waiting for your papi.”
A waiter swoops in to pull back a chair for me and places my backpack in the empty seat beside it. “Would you like anything else, Señor Pueblos?” says the waiter, who I’ve only heard Papá ever call Pelícano. At Abuelito’s nod, Pelícano takes away his plate.
“Café descafeinado,” Abuelito orders. “Leti?”
“Chicken nuggets, please. And a Shirley Temple.”
Pelícano leaves and the susurration of voices fills the leftover silence. Abuelito flicks through the files in his portfolio as the minutes tick by. I pick up a fork and make it walk across the table on its pronged end.
“How was school?” Abuelito asks once Pelícano returns with my Shirley Temple. It is a bright, artificial red, with a cherry on the bottom. I bunch up the paper straw wrapper concertina-style as I remove it so that it unfurls like a worm when I drop a bead of soda on it, careful as a scientist in a laboratory.
“It was okay,” I say. “It rained at recess.”
Anna Nicole Torres I am a writer and first-year graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing program at Saint Mary's College of California. I am currently sheltering in place in San Jose with my family.