Driving Parallel to the Sierra Madres

By Cecilia Flores

Holidays can be an illusive desire that expires while also embedding
itself. Illusive holidays can be desires that expire while also
embedding themselves. Embedded desires expire on holiday.

I am co-pilot to my father who is driving parallel to the Sierra Madres in our rented white Dodge Caravan. A car my parents argued over because two smaller ones would’ve been cheaper to insure (mom) but we should stay together as a family (dad). Mom researches a lot for these family trips and will tell you all about the effort, without prompting. Dad thinks he’s the only one who can drive in Mexico. So mom does more research and dad pays the difference. That’s how they resolve their arguments.

Oscillating the hills of arid deserts, we pass silly-limbed cacti that can tell you how the wind blows, dwarfed palms that wave at you and surprising species of pines that seem to just appear. I ask my father questions about his life before me. Partly because I love the way he tells stories; partly because one of my co-piloting jobs is to help him stay awake; partly because his memories are my present’s lack.

Dad downshifts and revs the engine of our Caravan, stretch-swerving into the yolk of a non-linear two lane highway in order to pass the slower car ahead. This is a very Mexican way of driving and I really think about dying in a car accident when he does it. He tells me about renting a house with five friends for his first year at a bad college in a small town. Bad because he wanted to study marine biology but the school was inland and had no laboratories. He recites the names of his housemates: Fer, Pancho, Gordo, Paco—I laugh because I always thought those were just racist stereotypes, he laughs because he can’t remember their real names. The five boys were broke and sometimes tried fishing. Dad cooked and the rest cleaned. He called his mother to ask for recipes and instructions to make beans and rice and tilts his head back in amusement remembering how crunchy and raw his first batches were. The way he tells these stories is really beautiful because I know he hasn’t visited the memories in so long and I know he’s adding some things to me—for me—like a little gift, an essence of him that I can tell again someday. And he’s happy, he’s laughing, he’s gesturing wildly despite our anxious driving conditions. But in the lulls, through my left periphery, there’s a little sadness in his expression, too, because he doesn’t know these boys anymore.

Driving parallel to the Sierra Madres in our rented, white Dodge Caravan. We are 3 generations, 6 people, 2 languages: 1 amoeba called family that doesn’t make sense but only makes sense.

The other four behind us are sleeping, heads back and mouths open; one with a tongue almost out. In the middle seats are the Grandmothers. Christmas in Oaxaca came from the idea of uniting them, for likely the last time. For every decade since the 70’s a picture has been captured of my Grandmothers dancing together: at Christmas, at a wedding, for my graduation, at a funeral. They don’t speak the same language but talk a lot. I’ve nicknamed them las pajaritas, which means the baby birds, a real foreshadowing and a term that delights my Grandmother Eva. They sleep, they eat, they poop at inconvenient times/places, they move very slowly but want to see everything, they are delicate, and their joy is infectious.

The legal counsel at work gets frustrated with me when I tell him I don’t understand copyright law, why the protection lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years? “You don’t need to understand it,” he tells me, kind of yelling, “but you have to accept it if you want to work in publishing!”

I don’t understand copyright law and I don’t understand lifetimes and they’re both all too knowable, so I don’t understand that, either.

Behind the two grandmothers sit my brother and mother. I wasn’t originally the copilot of this trip but my bother has turned. I felt it coming in the morning. Sitting next to him, far, far back in the van, his hot, fiery temper was plugged into something, his phone, fogging up the lefthand window, underneath a black sweatshirt and combat boots. 10AM and 30 minutes into the drive, one Grandmother had to pee, so the other decided to have the same need. When my brother bought beer at the gas station I demanded my mother trade places with me. That only made it worse. He thinks I pretend to be the perfect child. And he has a point because I’m the alcoholic of the family so I shouldn’t pass judgement. Except that it wasn’t judgement I was feeling, it was the same kind of rage.

Driving parallel the Sierra Madres in our rented, white Dodge Caravan and only 30 minutes in, too quickly, after so much time and place apart, the Caravan becomes a tuna can, a mitochondria, a hot hive, a capsule.

My brother and I stamp. Rubber and glue except we’re both glue and only the stamp is the rubber. Everything we do and say to each other sticks, in ways we hate. And yet we cannot directly relate to one another because we are stamped by each other. It’s the torment and the treasure of loving a sibling.

Driving again and now my mother sits to the right of my brother. She is trying to write her student evaluations on an iPad with attachable keyboard. A pile of papers are propped atop the windowsill cupholders, another on her lap, another on her extended leg supported by her mother’s armrest. When her white toes stick into my Grandmother’s arm she hollers in detested surprise. And whenever my father swerves the car, my mother shrieks in frustration because her absurd scheme collapses. Just the kind of cruel joke my mother would play on herself. Luckily, my dad can’t hear out of his right ear, and no one else in the car cares, so her complaints go completely unnoticed.

On the plane from NYC to Mexico I watched all 12 episodes of a Netflix special about the astronaut Scott Kelly. He holds the record for the longest time spent by an American on the International Space Station, which was 1 year. He has an identical twin brother, a retired astronaut, so while he was up there, samples of his body were taken and compared to those of his brother down here. Incredible things happen to the human body during a year in space. Weightlessness means that bodies stretch and one can never sit down. Small loops are built onto every surface under which astronauts can hook their toes and as a result the tops of their feet adapt to touch and the bottoms get gummy. Every part of them gets gummy, it seems. When the tiny, impossible capsule delivers them back to earth and they’re pulled out, one by one, they look like fetuses in funny suits. Their heads all white and wrinkly and terrifying. It was like watching a very strange sort of birth, in reverse, but not a death. In the proceeding months the astronauts would endure excruciating pain and rehabilitation as their joints, muscles, ligaments and lungs readjusted to gravity.

Driving parallel to the Sierra Madres in our rented, white Dodge Caravan we were also in a kind of habitable artificial satellite. These are the people who taught my toes how to turn. High gravity. Return to your center. Family vacations are neither inexplicable nor plausible.

Fresh, roasted peanuts are our next stop, or pullover, really. They’re the best snacks you’ve ever had in a car and shell-cracking, bag-passing ferocity ensues. It’s a really messy affair: shells and membranes and dusty bits get into the ground and behind the seats and if any of us had the fantasy of keeping this car clean, crack another peanut. We turn west on the highway. We go on.

My Grandmothers don’t speak the same language but both love la platica and since one half-sleepily heard my story of the astronaut, it’s demanded that I translate. This helps the mood of the car because I clearly don’t re-tell it well and interjections from those once thought asleep add to a dotted and discursive rendition of the story I originally told. I still don’t know how to translate gummy.

This is how our car rides go. Packing, anticipation, excitement, crack, lull, animation, lull, repeat.

When dad thinks everyone is asleep again he asks how I am doing.

In elementary school we once laid our bodies on butcher paper while classmates drew with colorful markers around our heads, fingertips, crotches and toes. The assignment was to describe a person using their periphery. Near the head, you’d write: smart; near the heart: good friend; near the leg: good at basketball.When my dad asks me this I feels he’s doing the same but with some sort of tracing mechanism of my insides. I wish I could annotate the butcher paper or show him a scan. Because when he asks it’s not as though he wants to know. He knows already. We are confounded by a world that has become all too knowable. I want to say that I am still heartbroken; that I feel less lonely in myself but more susceptible to the elements; that I may be allergic to pickled jalapeños but can’t stop eating them; that I’m afraid all of my relationships will disappoint me.

Sierra Madre means mother mountain. She is part of a larger range known as the backbone of America.

At the bequest of family, bound by gravity, impervious to one another’s stifled human storms we drive and live and die. Parallel to the Sierra Madres. In our rented, white Dodge Caravan.

Cecilia Flores is an editorial assistant at One World, a division of Random House. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Evergreen State College where she studied Literature and Philosophy. She’s interested in projects by Latinx writers, books that probe the boundaries of genre, the phenomenology of embodiment and the study of addiction. She pretends to be in Grad school by covertly attending classes, lectures and conferences where she lives in New York City.