The wind poured through the car window and danced across her scalp. Zadie’s black curls whipped and tangled as she drummed her hands on the steering wheel, singing along with the blaring radio. Barreling up the freeway toward New York, she felt the oppressive weight of the nation’s capital lifting by the mile.
That city was cursed, she decided, built on swamplands and rotten with corruption from the founding days of the country. If she never saw the white buildings of federal power again it would be too soon. She threaded her fingers through the wind’s caress. If only she could live like this – in motion, hung in the decision-less liminal space between destinations, her mind empty of hard-edged thoughts.
Inez snapped off the radio.
“I want to talk to you.”
Zadie flinched at the steely hint in the small woman’s tone. Inez had spent the last two hours of the drive staring pensively out the window. Zadie had tried to shake her out of her mood, but ultimately decided to ignore the gathering storm in the passenger seat.
“I’d rather not,” Zadie replied, switching hands on the wheel and reaching for the radio dial. “Can’t we just drive along and enjoy life for once?”
“You don’t even know what I want to talk about,” Inez retorted in a grumpy tone. Her dark eyes flashed with sudden irritation.
Zadie snorted knowingly.
“Let me guess: politics, the movement, or death,” she sighed. “That’s all we ever talk about these days.”
She turned on the radio.
Inez shut it off.
“Fine. Let’s talk about life, liberty, and love,” she said to Zadie. “Remember those? You used to believe in them.”
Zadie let out a dry laugh.
“We wanted life and found death waiting. We dreamed of liberty, but where is our freedom, Inez? We’re tied to this movement whether we like it or not. We can’t just haul off and leave. And love?” Zadie groaned. “Everyone on Capitol Hill is laughing at our naive faith in love. Makes me want to crawl into a corner and cry.”
Inez grabbed the steering wheel.
“Pull over,” she ordered, pointing to the looming exit and yanking the wheel.
“Are you trying to get us killed?” Zadie screeched.
“There,” Inez said shortly, indicating a place to stop. “Pull up on the side of the road. It doesn’t matter where.”
The car lurched as one side bumped over the loose gravel. A stand of highway trees rustled beside them. Vehicles shook the car as they thundered past, headed for gas stations and take-out burger joints. The vacancy of sound hung between them for a moment, comforting yet lonely. Then Inez took a deep breath and began to speak.
“You are not the only person holding in her silent tears,” she reminded Zadie. “Guadalupe Dolores was connected to me like my own limbs and that drone snapped her out of my life. I am choking full of sorrow, yet hollow all at once. She is – was – my baby sister. I was there at her wedding, the births of her children, and now her funeral. I wanted to fall in love someday and live through her merciless teasing. I wanted her to give me annoying advice. I wanted to nag her to lose weight when we got as old and fat as Mama. I wanted to cry on her shoulder as we lit candles for our old bruja of a mother.”
Tears welled in her eyes as she stared out the windshield.
“I want to curl up in a ball, but we have responsibilities that are bigger than us, larger than our sorrow and grief. They can be a balm to our hearts. Purpose goes a long way when the journey seems unbearable.”
“What if I don’t believe in that purpose anymore?” Zadie asked in a very quiet voice. Her lips trembled as she spoke her fear. “What if I don’t believe in our slogans and catch phrases? What if that’s not enough?”
“It was never enough for some of us,” Inez replied, tempering her impulse to laugh at Zadie’s plaintive tone. “Do you think mi madre is doing this for one of Charlie’s convenient slogans?”
Zadie had to smile at the thought.
“No,” Inez continued emphatically. “The old bruja is doing it for something deeper. Oh, I know if you asked her she’d say she’s doing it for the money – el pinche government is making it hard to make a living on the black market.”
Zadie laughed at Inez’ perfect imitation of Pilar Maria’s scowl.
“But, you have not seen the look on my mother’s face as she tucks Lupe’s children into bed. You did not see her when she broke through the blockades of the city to start the people’s evacuations. You did not grow up with her; you do not know the comfort of her arms in your darkest hour of despair.”
Inez turned in her seat to catch Zadie’s eyes.
“Mi madre is driven by love. A love so fierce and intense it frightens her. She jokes and spits and hides it under that toughness, but don’t be fooled. She says it’s all survival in this dog-eat-dog world, but she would throw herself in front of bullets for me – she would have thrown herself in front of Lupe if she could. That’s not just survival; that’s love. And Mama feels it for her neighbors in the city. She feels it for the youths making trouble in the alley that she harasses to break up their fights. She feels it for the homeless she pretends to curse while slipping money and warm socks to them when she thinks no one is looking. Mama was taught to believe that love makes us vulnerable, and so she hides it.”
Inez’ eyes turned bright.
“But your mother? Your mother had unwavering faith that our love makes us strong and that our vulnerability gives us grace under pressure.” Inez had trained thousands of people along with Ellen Byrd. They had marched side-by-side for miles. “My mama is tough,” she said, “but your mother was fearless.”
“Yes, but your mother is alive, and mine is not,” Zadie said bluntly.
Watch out for that bitterness, Zadie Byrd Gray, she thought quietly, or you’ll grow up like my mama, not yours.
“What’s the point of fighting this struggle . . . if not for love?” Inez argued. “Love for the children, for the earth, for the people. You lose your love, Zadie Byrd Gray, and they’ve won. You’ve got nothing. But if you hold fast to love, you can walk into their offices with your head held high. You’ll look at that Capitol Building and the White House and see that they’re just wood and white paint and pointless greed. You’ll laugh at that whole corrupt city because they are missing the point of life. And you’ll be able to march – like your mother, fearless, humble, dignified, and strong – straight into the heart of darkness blazing with love.”
Inez paused thoughtfully.
“Don’t lose your faith in love, Zadie. It’s stalking you . . . and if you turn your back, love will pounce. If you run away, love will chase you. If you shut it out, love will break down all of your defenses.”
“You sound like Charlie,” Zadie commented softly.
“Well, listen to him. Don’t bite his head off.”
“You’re hardly one to give out relationship advice,” Zadie said pointedly to Inez.
“Haven’t I blown enough chances to know when you’re screwing something up?” Inez shot back.
Zadie hid a smile. She leaned across the awkward constraints of seatbelts and cup holders to hug her in forgiveness.
“Ai, chica,” Inez murmured to her. “It’s not easy, la vida. Let’s not make it harder on each other, okay?”
“Yeah,” Zadie agreed.
“And let’s find something to eat. You’re all sticks and bones.”
“Says the ninety-pound heavyweight,” Zadie replied, rolling her eyes.
“I’m not the one who stands as tall as your mother,” Inez commented in a tone that softened gently at the end. “She’s in you, Zadie, never far from your heart. You have her eyes, height, build . . . and her heart. Remember to love, and that beautiful heart of hers beats inside you, too.”
She placed her hand over Zadie’s heart. Tears came to the young woman’s eyes. She nodded and clasped Inez’ small, weathered hand. Inez breathed deeply. Now they could continue northward. They were ready for the challenges ahead.