Tunnels by Marytza Rubio
Epifania Fogata gave birth to three girls and four boys. My dad’s bedtime stories were full of defeated warriors and lost battles. Each night my grandmother asked him, What did they do wrong? How could they have won? When he was a teenager, he was entrusted with details of an inherited revolution. Two of his sisters were sent to schools in New England and one was sent to Paris. His brothers were taught to dig.
The walls along the border between Mexico and the Unites States disrupted the natural migration pattern of every living creature that couldn’t fly or swim. The mountain lions and jaguars suffered tremendous losses to their populations. They would have become extinct if not for the ingenuity and vast underground network built by the Fogata Landscape Company. When the mountain lions discovered they could travel under the freeways, their populations boomed and spread across Southern California. Moving the jaguars required meticulous planning. The Fogatas devoted decades preparing for their journey.
After we all graduated from high school, I moved to L.A., my sister stayed home, one of my cousins became a trophy wife, and her sister backpacked across Southeast Asia. At the farewell barbecue before Miriam’s trip, she asked my dad if he had anything she could take for him when she visited Vietnam. Miriam told us about a documentary she’d seen about veterans who went back to the jungle to do a burial ceremony for the lives they’d taken—and for the parts of themselves now lost. She said she’d be happy to take something or bring something back if that would help him heal. My dad said he had nothing to heal, he was A OK, baby and served himself another plate of ribs.
Miriam’s sister Molly Bianchi (née Maricela Fogata) lived in one of those seaside cliff homes that was always in danger of burning down during fire season or falling off the edge of the earth during rainy season. The house’s fragility was part of its cachet: We can afford to be destroyed. The last time I visited that house I was twenty years old. My dad and I had taken a day trip to the beach and stopped in to visit Molly and her new husband. They were overseeing the construction of a gazebo for their telescopes. I saw in her face what my dad was asking me to fight. I saw my cousin get uncomfortable when the man working in her yard asked her a question. The question is in choppy accented English and it frustrates her, and when my dad interjects to interpret, she demands that my father, a veteran and her elder, speak English, please, and she and I never spoke again.
On my way out of my parents’ house, I carried a blanket and wrapped it around my dad’s shoulders. He leaned forward in the lawn chair with his hands clamped together and his black wiry eyebrows tangled above his eyes. I let him know I was leaving and would be back the next weekend. When he didn’t respond, I moved closer to his good ear and repeated it. He said, “We’re running out of time.”
I took a deep breath and looked at my watch. There would be another train. I sat on the asphalt and joined him in his silence. Coddling him would only upset him and reminding him to have patience would anger him. I picked up a fallen leaf from the avocado tree and started to pinch off the browned pieces when the squawks of Santa Ana’s emerald parrots cut through the dusky sky, loud enough to distract my dad from his brooding. “Next time, bring me a dessert,” he said.
At the train station, a woman talking on her phone said it was “the strangest Monday ever.” She said global warming had made Friday the 13th come late, and what we really had to worry about now was Monday the 16th. As she said this, flecks of ash from the wildfire swirled around us and settled on the train tracks. The latest casualty was some billionaire’s multi-million dollar Laguna Beach house. One of his houses. The winds were forecasted to pick up again that weekend. The news would call it the “Santa Ana Wind Event.” It felt good hearing my city’s name on the news. It felt good to make people afraid.
A bearded man sat across from me on the train and asked for a piece of paper. He said he needed to write down an idea. All the passengers ignored him, so he started to recite his thoughts. I reached into my purse to find my notebook, hoping if he had something to scribble on he’d stop talking. I tore off a few sheets and handed them to him. The man mumbled I was “one of the good ones” before snatching the paper out of my hand and sprawling out in the middle of the aisle to write in silence. I looked down at my notebook and touched the embossed gold dove decorating the cover. The printed text below read We have so many dreams that we cannot talk about them all which I first misread as We have so many dreams that we cannot talk about them at all.
When I arrived at the Little Tokyo station, my favorite man greeted me with a white rose. He asked me about my visit with the family and his voice jumped up an octave the way it did when he talked to children or homeless dogs. I didn’t respond. We walked past the sparkling metal and glass of the Japanese American Museum and slipped through a gap in the brick wall and down a narrow alley into our restaurant. This is where we came whenever we needed to feel right again. We never said it out loud, to do so would destroy the dream, but when we came here, my fiancé and I pretended we were in Tokyo. The lights of the Los Angeles skyline blurred away and the hammering steel blades of a vigilant helicopter warped the audio fabric of our conjured Japan.
Chicago, Denver, San Francisco
The explosions occurred in the late evening, when the office workers and executives had gone home and the cleaning crews had just arrived. One hundred and forty-seven dead. The targets were undocumented—it took years to uncover their true identities. A smaller explosion with a bottle rocket occurred at a nativity scene in Phoenix, but no souls were claimed. It was later determined to be an act of vandalism not related to the bombings, yet the image of the bubbling plastic of the Virgin Mary’s face become a symbol of national mourning to some, a declaration of war to others.
We got married in my parents’ backyard. The ceremony was celebratory enough to be special but subdued enough to be appropriate. Only his parents and my parents attended, and the next morning we boarded a plane to Japan. I needed distance from the States. Mid-flight, I told him I was going to quit teaching ESL because an old friend of my dad’s had asked me to care for his flock of trained pigeons.
There are two Guarani phrases I retained from once working with a Paraguayan teaching assistant: Mbaé’chepa and Ipora. This knowledge and a valid passport were the two things that qualified me to record the vocabulary we’d use to build our code. My husband insisted on coming with me and I pretended to put up a fight but knew I would be more productive if I didn’t spend so much energy missing him. “Do you think is going to work?” he asked me the third week in. I only had a page and a half of words we could use. The phrases needed to be simple to scramble and decode, and concise enough to be legible on the small scroll we’d tuck inside our pigeons’ anklets. “Don’t worry about writing a complete sentence,” he insisted, but I couldn’t shut off my years of being an English instructor. “They don’t need to make sense, just get the point across.” He was right, words were all I needed: Coast, Hill, Beast.
Erupt, Earth, Run.
When I was a newborn, there was a disruptive humming above the kitchen stove that concerned my mother. After complaining about the noise to my dad, she took me out for a stroll. My dad then dragged in a ladder from the backyard and crawled into the attic to investigate. The attic was a glorified crawl space full of itchy insulation, hot, dark, and only one way in, one way out. When we returned from our walk, the humming had stopped and my mom found my dad sitting in the living room staring at the wall, his face pale and wet. He told her he’d gotten trapped. He said that because everything was so dark, he didn’t know if he was left or right or day or night or city or jungle. When he heard his heartbeat echo in his ears like a desperate alarm, he decided to crawl backward, hoping that going in reverse would bring him to the edge of the attic door. If his foot dropped into an open space, he would survive but until it did, he believed he would not. He said this while holding me in his arms, rocking me back and forth and telling me he was sorry.
My aunt Christina bought a cap-gun from the neighborhood paletero. As a joke, she fired it at my twenty-six-year-old dad when he was in the bathroom brushing his teeth. His shocked face drained to khaki, like when he got lost in the attic and when they told him he had to have surgery and when they covered his body several hours after I told him, for the second and last time, I loved him very much.
When I was a little girl, my dad showed me how to set up pigeon traps in our backyard. We’d prop a cardboard box up by one corner using only a twig from our avocado tree, then tie a string around the twig. Dry cat food was the bait. The pigeons swooped down and pecked around the trail leading to the trap. They always did a hesitant little dance when they reached the outer rim of the propped-up box. My dad held his hands like a conductor and I held the other end of the string, waiting for his cue. “Uno, dos, y…” he’d draw out the “y” until the curious bird took its place in the center of the trap. “Tres!”
We set every bird free. The point of the traps wasn’t to collect pigeons. The point was to learn timing.
We arrived at Las Playas to scatter my dad’s ashes. His soul inhabited the altar in my mom’s living room and his name was engraved on a rock inside the Japanese garden next to City Hall. I insisted we wait until a full-moon weekend to scatter his ashes. My Tio escorted us out into the ocean on his boat, far enough into the water where the waves were still enough to reflect the sky, but close enough to shore that I could see the flickering lights of the candles on the sand. My sister read a poem and my mother gave the ocean a bouquet of gardenias and white roses. We poured my father into the moon. The boat lolled atop the rippling waves. We each heard our name echoed in the laps of water. I could clearly see him, smiling and clapping his hands: Uno, dos. Uno, dos. Uno, dos, y…
I broke my fifteen-year silence and left a message for Molly to join me in San Francisco for my sister’s book signing. She ignored me. Molly always wanted to be white so she never developed the instincts of a brown girl—there are unexpected gifts that accompany being hated and underestimated for who you are. One of them is sensing when you are in danger. Molly rejected us—and her full self—but our family still honored blood: The Fogata Landscaping crew did not connect her yard to the underground migration network. They did not spare her neighbors.
The sleek black jaguars roared as they burst through the ground, hungry and determined to reclaim their land.
Marytza K. Rubio is a writer from Santa Ana, California.