Chuck opened his heavy eyes and adjusted to the dim light of a wood paneled room. He lay on one of four cots aligned in a row along one side of the 30-square-foot building. Along the other wall, rubber gloves, bottles of medicine, a stethoscope and a needle lay on a bright white towel spread neatly across a formica surface next to a metal sink.
The other three beds sat empty, their crisp white sheets folded tightly under the mattress. Chuck pulled his arm to rise out of the bed, but felt a yank of resistance only to realize he had an intravenous tube inserted into his left wrist and some sort of hard plaster cast covering his right arm.
He took greater stock of his surroundings. The bare-wood roof of the room looked like the ceiling of the shed in his back yard in Pleasanton, built quickly and with no sense of finish or style. Drab greenish-grey cabinets hung on the wall across from his bed. The room contained two doors on opposite sides of the open space between the beds and the sink.
The place smelled of must and latex, the sort of rinky-dink medical clinic that might perform illegal abortions, Chuck surmised.
“Yo,” he called out into the openness of the room. “Hello? Hola? Anyone here?”
After a few minutes, a short, older man in white golf shirt and jeans emerged from one of the doors.
“Hola señor,” he said with a wide smile. “¿Está usted bien?
“Si,” Chuck responded. “Hablo English?”
“No señor,” the doctor replied. “Lo siento. Yo no Hablo Ingles.”
Chuck closed his eyes in frustration. The doctor attempted to communicate with him in short, simple sentences and phrases.
“Estabas deshidratado,” he said before seeking to translate into simpler words for Chuck’s benefit. “Deshidratado; no agua.”
He pointed to the intravenous drip and accentuated the words “Salina; agua.”
He also pointed at the cast on his arm and said something resembling “cuatro semesters” or “cuatro siestas”, indicating the amount of time it would take his arm to heal. Chuck figured out that the doctor probably meant four weeks and not four naps.
Chuck’s mind started to churn. He felt so foggy for so many days since arriving in Mexico. In fact, he had no clue how long he had even been in the country.
“What day is it?” he asked the doctor, repeating the words slowly to try and help him understand. “Day? Monday? Tuesday? Que, uh, dias?”
The doctor looked confused at first, but nodded and smiled at the use of broken Spanish. He held up his cell phone to display the date.
“Jesus,” Chuck gasped. “I’ve been here three days.”
His mind kicked into a higher gear of thinking.
“I have to call my wife,” he said, reaching slowly for the phone. “Por favor, telephone… telofono. Yo, uh, yo telofono?”
The doctor again paused as if processing the poorly constructed sentence before placing the cell phone into Chuck’s hand.
He quickly accessed the dialer and plugged in his home number, but he received only a strange busy signal. Realizing he needed to enter additional numbers, he typed “011” in front of his home number, but that didn’t work either. He tried it with a “1” following the “011” and without the “1”, but still only heard the annoying honk of the international busy signal.
“United States?” he asked the doctor, holding up the phone and setting it to the speaker to let him hear the beeping. “America?”
“No internacional. Lo siento, señor.”
Chuck’s shoulders slumped. He imagined Stephanie and the girls huddled at home, desperately waiting to hear from him, fearing the worst. A new idea hit him.
“Facebook?” he asked the doctor. “Can I use Facebook?”
“Facebook?” he replied. “Si, usa Facebook.”
Chuck looked for a Facebook icon, but couldn’t find it. He held up the phone in frustration.
“Yo no uso Facebook,” the doctor shrugged. “El navogador.”
“El navogador,” the doctor clarified. “Safari? Internet Explorer? Google Chrome?”
Chuck entered “www.facebook.com” into the browser app and the password prompt filled the screen. Chuck froze. At home, the password defaulted. He had no idea, after ten years of Facebook use, what the password might be. He tried different combinations of his initials and birth date, but nothing worked. Finally, he remembered that the password was the first five letters of Stephanie’s name followed by their anniversary date. But, when he entered the right combination of characters, a new message indicated that he had previously entered the wrong password too many times and that he would have to wait before trying again.
After shaking his head and staring at the message, he tried the link to reset the password and followed those prompts, but for the last step, he would have to validate the code that Facebook sent to his cell phone, which, of course, was still at his house in Texas.
Chuck stewed and thought. The doctor shrugged.
“The U.S. Embassy,” Chuck said to the doctor. “Can we call the embassy?”
“La Embajada? Si.”
Chuck tried to browse to find the number, but struggled with the Spanish version of the browser. The doctor, picking up Chuck’s intention, took the phone, found the number and dialed before handing the phone back to Chuck.
“U.S. Embassy, Mexico City,” said a cheerful voice on the other line.
“Hello,” said Chuck. “My name is Charles Domo. I was deported from the United States three days ago. I’m in a place called Reynosa. I need to get a message to my wife that I’m safe and that I miss my family terribly.”
He gave the number and asked her to call right away.
“We’ll add that to our queue and get to it as soon as we can.”
“Can you just make the call as soon as we hang up?”
“I have a big list of calls I have to make, but I’ll get to it as soon as possible.”
“It’s really important.”
“I understand, sir. It’s important to me too and I’ll try to prioritize it as quickly as I can. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Yes,” Chuck said, “I have no money and no place to stay. Does the Embassy provide any assistance?”
“We help American citizens in need,” she replied. “Technically, you don’t qualify. We’re not tasked with helping Mexican citizens, just Americans. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m an American citizen,” Chuck snapped. “Or, I was. Or, well, I lived there my whole life. I paid my taxes. I love my country, the United States. I need help. Can you help me?”
The woman on the end of the line went silent for a moment. He heard her typing on her keyboard.
“There’s a hotel in Reynosa,” she said. “The Casa del Sol. I can provide a voucher for the night. I can’t do much else for you. But I hope that helps.”
“And, you’ll call my wife?”
“Yes sir,” she replied. “As soon as possible.”
Stephanie sat at her kitchen table with her laptop casting a sickly blue pale over her face. Plates from their dinner cluttered the counters. Bits of crispy breadcrumbs coated the bottom of a frying pan still sitting on the stove-top. A glass serving bowl with four small florets of limp broccoli sat on the table next to another similar serving bowl with remnants of the white rice that accompanied their fried chicken finger dinner.
Britney lay across the couch with her over-sized headphones covering half the side of her head.
Stephanie clutched the phone, speaking with Chuck’s boss at the furniture store. Steve, the manager, had sympathetically inquired about her husband and offered any assistance he could to help them through their difficult family time.
“We can advance him his vacation pay and his outstanding commissions,” Steve said. “I wish I could extend the health benefits beyond the end of the month, but there are strict company policies, plus we have the healthcare provider to deal with. We all really like your husband and wish him the best of luck at this tough time. If it helps, when he comes back, his job will always be here waiting for him.”
Stephanie thanked Steve and promised to keep him abreast of any developments in her attempts to get him back home.
Ashley emerged from the upstairs, again dressed in miniskirt and blouse, with black pump boots that extended halfway up her calves. The hint of make-up on her lips, cheeks and under her eyes told the story that she had some kind of special night planned.
“Where are you going?” Stephanie asked, as Ashley slung her beaded purse over her shoulder.
“Out,” Ashley replied. “It’s the weekend. I have plans.”
“You’re still only 16,” Stephanie said. “I’d at least like to know where you’re going and with whom.”
“It’s no big deal,” said Ashley.
Stephanie stared her down. Britney continued to gaze at the ceiling, nodding her head to the music, oblivious to the showdown between Ashley and her mother.
“I have a date, okay?”
“A date?” Stephanie asked.
“I’ve been on dates before.”
“With whom is this date?”
“His name is Scott. He’s a friend of Ursula’s brother.”
“Ursula’s brother from college?” Stephanie asked. “Because it can’t be her younger brother from middle school.”
“Yes,” Ashley turned and faced her mother. “He goes to UT, okay. He’s a nice guy. I met him at Ursula’s party last weekend.”
“I thought that was just you and her watching a movie at her house?” Stephanie asked. “Where is this guy taking you?”
Stephanie’s phone rang. Rupert’s name flashed across the screen.
Ashley turned toward the door.
“Wait,” Stephanie raised her voice as she slid the answer function to take the call. “This could be something important about Daddy.”
“I have to go,” Ashley pleaded. “He’s here.”
“Have him come to the door,” Stephanie said, before holding the phone to her ear. “Hi. I’m sorry hold on.”
Ashley made her way to the foyer and clutched the door knob.
“Ashley, don’t you walk out that door.”
“Mom, I’ll be fine.”
“Excuse me, Stephanie,” Rupert interjected. “I see you’re busy. I just have a minute or two.”
“Ashley,” Stephanie called out across the lawn, following her daughter out the front door. “Don’t you get in that car.”
“Mrs. Domo,” Rupert said. “I have only little time. I’m in the middle of an arbitration meeting.”
Stephanie ignored Rupert as the car sped off, down the street.
“Mrs. Domo,” Rupert continued.
“What,” she snapped into the phone before closing her eyes and catching herself. “I’m sorry, Rupert. It’s not your fault.”
“I’m sorry to bother you,”
“No, I’m sorry you had to hear all that,”
“Is everything ok?”
“It’s just really tough to do this on my own,” she said, her voice breaking slightly.
“Yes, well, I’m sorry to tell you,” said Rupert. “Unfortunately, I may have to cancel our meeting with Senator Sanchez on Monday. I might have to be in court all day.”
“I thought you had a light case load?” Stephanie pushed back. “You said you’d be able to focus on getting Chuck back. When will you know?”
“This came up unexpectedly,” Rupert said, his voice slow and contrite. “It’s more of a personal matter that I may not be able to avoid. I’ll know better late tonight. I’m so sorry.”
“Fine,” Stephanie said. “I’ll be up late. Just let me know.”
Stephanie returned to the house and eyed Britney on the couch. The stress and frustration rose in her throat as she watched her 18-year-old high school junior wile away, wasting time laid out on the family couch.
“I think the phone rang while you were outside,” Britney said. “I didn’t hear it ring, but I heard someone speaking on the answering machine.”
“That could have been Daddy,” Stephanie gasped.
“No, I would have gotten up if it were,” said Britney. “It was some lady. Sounded like a telemarketer.”
“Whatever,” Stephanie sighed, returning to her laptop.
Britney’s head slumped further into the couch and out of Stephanie’s sight. She could only see her daughter’s pink socks and cotton pajamas protruding out the far side.
“Why am I killing myself to write your college essays?” Stephanie asked.
Britney lay still on the couch, her head bobbing slightly to the music.
“Britney,” Stephanie snapped louder. “Take off those damn headphones and come write your essays. They’re all due next month.”
Britney rose from the couch at the urgent tone of her mother’s voice.
“I told you, I’m not sure I even want to go to college,” she said.
“Well, until you know for certain, we should make sure the option is available to you.” Stephanie replied.
“I really don’t care about college.”
Stephanie’s cell phone buzzed once and she noticed a text from Rupert.
“You need to care about your life,” Stephanie barked.
“Oh, like you care so much about my life?”
“Of course, honey,” Stephanie crinkled her brow in confusion. “Of course, I care about you.”
The text from Rupert read: “One last question to ask you. Can I call later tonight?”
“If you cared so much about this family,” Britney raised her voice venomously. “You wouldn’t have treated Daddy so bad.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You constantly yelled at him, telling him he didn’t make enough money; that all your friends made more money than us; that he didn’t do enough to help the family. You think we’re all asleep at night when you fight with him, but we’re not and we heard you guys all the time arguing.”
“That’s just how married people work out their problems,” Stephanie’s voice moved from angry to defensive.
“No,” Britney stood her ground. “Daddy doesn’t yell at you or swear at you. That’s all you, treating him like shit.”
“There are more than one side to a story, Brit,” Stephanie’s tone turned back to anger. “It’s not as simple as you might think. And, watch your language.”
“Whatever,” Britney stood and faced her mother. “It’s not like you and Daddy were this dream couple and madly in love with each other. You think we didn’t know what was going on? You’re probably glad he’s gone.”
“You watch your God-damned mouth,” Stephanie barked, “That’s completely unfair and out of line.”
“You probably called the immigration office and got him deported yourself,” Britney cracked as she tore past her mother and stormed up the stairs in tears.
Stephanie followed her to the bottom step. Looking up, she saw Emily sitting on the top landing with sad eyes cast despondently at her feet. Their eyes met.
“You were always pretty tough on him,” Emily said quietly before turning and entering Britney’s room to console her.
Stephanie stood frozen in her tracks, as a statue at the bottom of the stair. She leaned against the banister, running memories of her arguments with Chuck through her head. They fought, sure, she thought, but they loved each other. It was a partnership, a tough one with his changing jobs, her leaving her teaching career to raise the kids and their constant struggle to pay their bills. But they were a good couple. She knew they were. Or, at least, she thought they were.
As she sat at her computer, accessing their on-line bill payment app, she allowed the doubt that Britney had sewn into her mind to distract her from her focus on the family finances. She recalled meeting Chuck 20 years earlier at a club in Houston where she had recently graduated with her degree in secondary education. He seemed so lost, but happy; so much like a big adolescent, but a fun guy, willing to work hard to make her happy.
She recalled living in the tiny apartment in the cute little city of Victory, Texas where she taught high school English at nearby Matagorda High and he worked at a boutique woodworking shop in a sleepy suburb called Guadalupe. She could still remember the beige dust on all his clothes, the distinctive scent of lacquer and sawdust on his skin and the rough callouses on his hands as they caressed her back making love in their bed each night.
Her cell phone, down to barely any battery life left from a busy day, buzzed again. Rupert’s text read; “Will call soon. How late is ok?”
“11ish,” she responded, knowing the act of paying the family bills would take her some time and considerable creative finagling.
She walked across the kitchen, moved the plates and cups aside and plugged her phone into the charger cord next to her husband’s phone. That’s when she saw the text message in bright blue from Facebook.
“To change your password, enter the following code into the authentication field on the password reset screen: 639426.”
The realization that Chuck was out there, and trying to connect, hit her like a bullet to the heart. She put her hand across her mouth. Her lips contorted and blood rushed into her eyes and temples. She fell to her knees and sat with her back against the face of the dishwasher with both hands covering her face.
She hadn’t cried that deeply since the agents stormed into their home. In fact, she couldn’t recall a more cathartic release of emotion throughout her entire life.