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On the opposite side of Highway 5, a sparkling line of gridlock points north toward the United States of America. Over there, the traffic lanes are supermarket aisles.
You can buy popcorn, cookies, lollipops, cigarettes. You want coffee? You can get it from a boy barely tall enough to reach your car window. You want the paper in Spanish? In English? You want an animal-print towel? There are hundreds. People will be having sex. Nothing will happen on time. Cookies will be served with Styrofoam cups of coffee in the morning. Cocaine will be served in bathroom stalls at night. Now they can talk. Speaking is easier when the worst has been pushed out of earshot—past the point of being taunted, by delusions of safety, into some vengeful return.
Empty bars stand like relics of a vanished civilization felled by its own hedonistic excess: silent dance floors framed by thatched walls and faux-jungle decor, balconies full of tiki torches and flapping banners advertising tequila happy hours no one is attending. The clubs feel like foreclosed homes. The tourists have been scared away. The Centro Cultural Tijuana has a surprisingly lovely domed ceiling fitted with squares of glass that filter the sunlight into jeweled colors: fuchsia, tangerine, deep mint.
But the only people I see inside are men selling bus tickets to other places. Everyone is hawking wares along the streets, but no one is buying. If I wanted, I could get all kinds of things: a zebra-striped burro, postcards showing ten pairs of titties and the red stump of a Tecate can in the sand, a little frog carved by an old man before my very eyes and fitted with an actual cigarette between its wooden lips.
The whole time I am thinking of Tijuana two years ago, the never talking. All across the border, other towns are still in the thick of this unspeaking. This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it.