The Ballad of Maria

Posted on: January 28, 2014

There before us is Mexico. It is dry and clean, framed by the hard edges of the car windows. There is a kind of architectural brilliance to this sterile landscape, to it’s lack of mess. So, I ask, “What am I doing here? What is there to say of Mexico?” I am offered no answers, so I’ll make my own.

My answer is Maria, dying of cancer. She is being removed from this world, systematically at times. We are desperate, and because we saw it in a movie and because we are American we believe in the ability of the road to heal.

The road heals, cancer kills, and Mexico sucks; I hold these truths to be self-evident. Thou shalt not cross the border into this fucking hellsuck of a desert that swallows souls.

I’m driving a white 89’ VW Cabriolet with the top up. I’m not a car guy and the only reason I know this particular model is because Jorge at the car rental place kept repeating “Cabriolet” over and over again as his selling point. Maria tried to dust off her Spanish but Jorge kept saying “Cabriolet” and finally I said, “Fuck, fine,” and Jorge smiled and walked to the back to get the keys.

And so now I’m driving a fucking “Cabriolet.”

Maria says, “You’re so angry. Please, be calm.”

Of course I’m angry. Why aren’t you angry? You should be fucking angry, too. Instead, she smokes a joint. She leans her head back against the seat and blows the smoke out of the open window and into the Mexican desert and then she offers the joint to me. I decline because I don’t smoke anymore. Since she was diagnosed, I can’t risk losing control of my emotions. I have to stay on point, so for her I decline the joint. I have to pilot the Cabriolet.

Here, we learn what Maria looks like. My description would be different if the desert and the cancer hadn’t stolen all of my romantic impulses, but they did, and now I am committed to realism. Maria is wearing a white dress with no bra; it’s a perfect dress to wear in a desert. She is twenty-two years old, half-Mexican from her father’s side, with dark skin that seems as if it was made to be in the sun. She had brown hair until she lost all of it, and at that time she wore a blue headscarf that had a little pink chicken on one corner. For reasons unknown even to her, she loves chickens. Now that she has stopped treatment her hair has grown back, but she still wears the scarf. Underneath, she sports a pixie-cut and her hair is a lighter shade of brown. When she got sick she fell off the edge, emotionally, I mean. I was of no assistance to her at that time and we went three weeks without seeing each other or talking. Before she got sick, I hadn’t been away from her for more than twenty-four hours since middle school. Eventually, she walked through the door back into the light, I suppose, and she was pretty much like she was before, except she no longer smiled with teeth. All her smiles were tight-lipped from that point on and it was a real shame. She had a great smile.

If you can’t tell that I love her, then I haven’t done a good job describing her.

She smokes more of the joint and keeps her head tilted toward the window so I can only see half of her face. She’s wearing sunglasses. The sun hangs above us in a blue sky buttressed by billowy, white cumulonimbus clouds. The red clay and dirt of the desert run beneath us. Mesquite trees, bent grotesquely by the wind, look like frail, hunkered witches and pockmark the land around our small highway.

I asked Maria where she wanted to go and she said, “I want to drive into the sun,” so we’re heading West. I’m hoping when we get there it swallows us up, both of us, and we won’t have to worry about Mexico or cancer ever again. But before we make it to the sun, we pass a small restaurant on the side of the highway, the first of its kind that we’ve seen, and Maria has the munchies so she instructs me to pull over. Once at a stop, she gets out the car and stretches and looks around and I wonder if she’s counting the times she’ll partake in normal, regular things. I know that I’m counting. There is a finite number of times that she’ll get out of a car after a long ride and stretch and look around at new environment. Does this make her moments more special? Yes. Should it? I don’t know.

The restaurant is actually more of a cantina and there are chickens. Because the universe makes no sense, Maria has cancer and will die before twenty-three, but at least there are chickens. She is pleased. We sit at one of the few tables and a teenage girl in jean shorts, sneakers, and a baby blue t-shirt greets us. There is a sign in English that says “Fresh eggs” on the gate of a wood fence behind us. The teenage girl’s name is Violet and when Maria tells her that her name is beautiful the girl grins and says in broken English that she’s the only person that she’s ever known named Violet. Maria replies that she’s never met a Violet either, and then asks me. I knew a Violet in third grade. “Nope,” I reply. “Never.”

We order pastor tacos with diced onions, peppers, and pineapple bits. They will be served on fresh corn tortillas. Maria is humming a tune and I know what it is before she says, “Do you remember my song?” I recognize it because I wrote it. It’s called “The Ballad of Maria,” and I wrote and played it for her in college. It’s a waltz with twelve verses and even though it’s insanely over the top, she loves it, and therefore so do I.

The tacos will arrive and they’ll be delicious. Night will come as well, and we won’t drive into the sun and disappear, not today. Instead we’ll stay at the cantina and drink tequila with Violet’s father who will have a guitar and I will play “The Ballad of Maria,” and when it’s over everyone will clap except for her. No, Maria will just smile at me, with teeth.

We’ll stay in Mexico until her penultimate month, where she’ll smoke weed and I’ll count the things she does as she does them for the last time; the last time Maria swims in the ocean, the last time Maria drinks a beer, the last time Maria showers in a Mexican motel room. Before it’s too late, we’ll go home. Her sister will sit next to me at the funeral and we’ll hold hands as we watch the progression of Maria’s life through a series of pictures being projected on the back wall of the church. You know the kind of pictures I’m referring to, so I don’t feel the need to explain.

She’ll select a Beatles song, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” to be played during the slideshow and toward the end, there for everyone to see, will be the picture I took of our Mexican cantina. Here’s the last time Maria smiled with teeth. Here’s the last time she hung out with chickens. Here’s the last time someone played her song, the one she used to hum, the Ballad of Maria.

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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