» Fiction

Only Tourists Remember the Alamo

She doesn’t know why she gets into the car, but she knows why she’s alone. Jonas broke up with her in an email: On the things that matter, the things that really count, we don’t see eye-to-eye. He’d switched the font to Lucida Handwriting, blue, as if to soften the blow. She’d seen it coming. They’d argued about evolution at the foot of the Tower of the Americas. He pointed at a duck and asked in what universe does something whittle down to that?


One with a sense of humor, she said, but he didn’t laugh.


Darwin was racist, Juliana, he snapped. Darwin said terrible things about black people. Did they teach you that in AP Biology?


Did they teach you that at Jesus Camp? she’d retorted, but only when he’d begun to walk away. He couldn’t hear her over the children screaming in the dry fountain. San Antonio was in drought, like always, so the waterfalls modeled on Mayan temples held no water. Kids in slip-on sneakers raced from bottom to top and down again. She was sure their game would end in bloody mouths, broken teeth, but no one fell.


She knows why she boarded a southbound bus after school. She wanted to go downtown. Her bills were too wrinkled for the token machine, but the driver waved her through with a nod. There were no other students on the bus, not even after the Trinity stop, just a few unsmiling women who glared at the hem of her tartan kilt but wouldn’t meet her eyes. She sat by the window near the back, tucking her skirt beneath her legs so her thighs wouldn’t stick to the vinyl, and watched the sidewalks for someone she knew. Down the North St. Mary’s strip, where bars and clubs beckon the underage. Not yet dark, no one drinking. Day drunks stick to the River Walk. There she’d once witnessed a pink-faced man in a balloon hat relieve himself into the brown current on a Tuesday morning, that summer she served breakfast and lunch at an Italian restaurant where every dish was pre-prepared, microwaved.


This is why I keep you on breakfast, Julibaby, the manager had said, nudging her. There’s a lot more of those groserias at dinner.


A lot more tips, too, she’d considered saying, but she didn’t want him to think she was a complainer. She’d barely earned enough to pay for the tricolor tie he insisted she wear in the 100-degree heat.


She didn’t go downtown to get drunk. No: she is terrified of drunkenness, thinks of it as roving hands and burst capillaries, a sickness you choose. A disease of weak will, the way her mother speaks of it, vergüenza; they’re better off without her father. So Juliana doesn’t drink, not really. She’d tried. The girls said it would mellow her, but at a party with the Central Catholic boys she’d panicked after two Mike’s Hard Lemonades and called her mom to come pick her up.


I am out of control, she told herself as she waited in the front yard. I am out of control. It felt good to say it, even if she knew it wasn’t true.


I didn’t raise you like this, her mother said in the car. Sneaking around. If you need to sneak around you’re ashamed of your life and who are you then, Juli?


I’m the virgin who gets scared and calls her mom, she thought. I’m Shirley Temple. She giggled. Her mother stiffened behind the wheel.


She got off the bus at a downtown plaza, pushing against the current of tourists toward the river. She was numb, blind to the designer chocolate shops and trinket stands and smear-faced kids begging their parents for food and air conditioning. Sweaty strangers but still she’d seen them all before, people set on remembering the Alamo, people who buy t-shirts and ice cream and indulge a history that makes them feel good. She was fixed on something Jonas said the night of their first date: I’m so glad you’re not like everyone else. She kept herself from asking how, letting his words swell in the silence like confession. He didn’t try to touch her, not then. He waited in his car until she’d closed and locked the front door of her house before he drove away. He waited until she was safe.


Dusk hit. The bald cypress trees along the river were mobbed with grackles, their clipped wails piercing the tourists’ din. Not their song, Jonas said—the slick brown-black birds were just trying to echo the downtown crowds. Their real call is much quieter, he once explained, less desperate. They sound almost like songbirds on their lonesome. He was homeschooled; he used words like lonesome. He had a small chip in his right front tooth. He was in a band, played guitar. She wanted to lick the calluses on his fingers until they were soft.


She doesn’t know why she gets in the car, but she knows why she took a pledge of abstinence for True Love Waits: Jonas asked. He came to Incarnate Word High School during assembly with homemade pamphlets and a promise ring on his finger and before a dusty green chalkboard she said yes to God, along with a handful of freshmen and Hilda Rios, who would probably remain a virgin the rest of her life, pledge or no. He wrote his number on her pamphlet, right next to a clip art vision of a smiling bride.


Call me if you want to talk about the promise we’ve made, he smiled.


I’ll be a born-again virgin if I can chill with him, some girl snickered after he left homeroom.


True Love Waits, but she didn’t have to. He invited her to bible study at his church that same week, offering to pick her up at her two-bedroom house on one of the sadder streets in Alta Vista and drive her all the way out to 1604, where box churches beamed search lights into the sky. On the drive she asked if he was paid to recruit virgins. She’d rehearsed the line a few times at home, hoping it struck the bohemian evangelical chord just so.


No, he laughed. It’s more of a volunteer gig. My calling, I guess.


Then, quick like he knew her next question: You’re the first recruit I’ve ever asked out.


He introduced her to his friends at bible study, boys with names like Chad and Tucker who tucked button-downs into belted jeans. Is it Joo-lee-anna or Hoo-lee-anna? one of them asked, and she blushed and shrugged: I respond to everything. Jonas pronounced it wrong but she hadn’t wanted to correct him. Their names sounded better together his way, anyway.


When she left the river, mounting the limestone steps toward the street, a crush of men in chino shorts cheered from a hot pink barge behind her. They lifted their beer mugs in approval; someone screamed nice skirt.


The girls at Incarnate were jealous of her, for once. They noticed her compulsively checking her email in the library between classes. Did you fuck him yet? they asked, poking her waist, laughing. Does he keep his ring on when he feels you up?


No, she snapped, but he does make me wear a crown of thorns. The girls laughed harder, impressed.


He didn’t touch her, not at first. They were never alone in a room. They spent afternoons in youth group in deep, circular discussions about holy desire, how true love is anchored first in faith. They sometimes brushed arms, sitting close enough for her to memorize his smell: Tide detergent and chew. A month before they held hands, six weeks before he kissed her in a dark theater. And then it was an urgent tumbling, a humming thrill that didn’t stop when he stopped (and always, he stopped). She reasoned it was okay, the wanting, because it felt pure. Like something she was created to do. Her body’s own glorious mystery.


Why are you doing this to me? he asked one night his hands in her hair his mouth on her ear.


She expected to find men on Commerce Street, men who bared gold teeth at her as they drove past, slow. Jonas asked about these cars once, early in their courtship: what’s the deal with y’all’s lowriders mang? He used a Southside accent when he asked questions like these. He asked more often those nights his tongue had been inside her mouth. He never waited for her answer. He never asked why she didn’t introduce him to her mother, either. Her house was off limits, he seemed to understand. He might have been relieved.


She didn’t tell her mother about him. She kept her grades up, still went to mass, was home, always, before the end of her mom’s shift. No need for questions.


Why are you doing this to me? he asked again and again breathing into the hollow of her collarbone why won’t you stop me?


Because I don’t want to, she wanted to say. Because you don’t want me to.


Instead she’d kiss his forehead and eyelids and pray he felt it too, the longing that followed her for hours after they touched. In mass, as she pushed the papery wafer against the back of her teeth, she’d close her eyes and meditate on the patch of hair beneath his lower lip. She’d come to crave her own faith, its private, solemn ritual. At Jonas’ church everything was hands in the air, flashing lights, the devoted weeping as they sang.


They’d meant to explore Mission San Jose the night he confronted her about ducks and evolution. She’d thought the majestic limestone church would please Jonas—he was a Texas history buff, could recite Davy Crockett’s monologue from the John Wayne movie on request—but the grounds closed at five o’clock.


How very Catholic, he sniped. Like the Lord operates from nine to five.


That’s not fair. Every church has operating hours.


Worship me from one to three, he sang. After seven, there’s no heaven.


His voice was thin. He couldn’t get it to tremble the right way.


Clever, she said. She reached for his hand but he shoved it in his pocket.


I guess it’s easier to break the rules when you have a million of them, he said. If you think about it, it’s like the Pope expects you to fail. Like he’s setting you up for it.


She didn’t know what to say. In the dead pause she remembered something a Taylor or a Travis had said to Jonas after bible study: How’s that spicy mission work coming along? You still a sucker for lost causes?


On Commerce Street she has a clear view of the Tower, watches its glowing glass elevator ferry diners to the revolving restaurant at the top. She’s never been; only tourists see the city from that height. They sip margaritas made from cheap mix and try to spot the Alamo, where men died for Texas, where their favorite myth was born.


She waits. She carries no purse, no phone. So when a man whistles at her from a cherry-red Camaro that sparkles like candy, she climbs into his passenger seat knowing people won’t find her if this stranger doesn’t want them to. She isn’t scared. It has to be irrevocable, what comes next.


The man talked a big game when she was on the sidewalk, some nonsense about her schoolgirl skirt, but he’s quiet when she enters the plush interior of his coupe.


What are you doing? he asks.


You said you had something to teach me.


He looks all around the car, everywhere but her face. He’s breathing hard. A drop of sweat glides down his jawline.


You don’t belong here, baby girl.


How do you know?


You’re a good girl. You don’t know what you’re doing.


True, she says. But I’ve got to learn sometime.


That’s not how it works, he says, but he lets the car roll forward without pressing the gas.


Alicia D. Ortega

Alicia D. Ortega was born in Washington, DC, but considers San Antonio her hometown. She holds a BA from Stanford and an MFA in fiction from Louisiana State, where her novel The Ghost You Deserve won the Robert Penn Warren Award for best MFA thesis. A participant in both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Screenwriters Intensive, she is also the 2018 Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellow. She lives and works in Texas.