Her name was Estrella, and she lived behind two borders, and I was stuck among many more. I had stumbled upon her during one of my many wanderings. Exoticism, traveling, and the corresponding arrogance that comes with eight new countries in five months was put to impish irrelevance by a metal, chain-linked border that required no passport to cross. She lived on the other side. Her face was perfectly round, with big blue eyes and black pigtails. She never said a word, but on my third visit she smiled at me.
I spent Easter with her one year, lugging five dozen hard-boiled eggs in a duffel bag across a border made of trash, pharmacies, taco carts, a wall, and human beings with little life left in them. We turned simple, white eggs into a swirl of pastel colors. I had to stop her from eating them with the shell still on.
When she was old enough to potty-train, I walked her to the overused bathroom whenever I noticed her looking confused and doing an agitated dance. I stood outside awkwardly, the door cracked a little in-case she decided to need me. She walked out too many minutes later, her grimy pants bunched in all the wrong places. She denied being a grown up now. She shook her head when I asked if she was still a little girl.
“Well, then, what are you?” We spoke the same level of Spanish, and she responded,
For her birthday, I bought her sidewalk chalk and we lay on our stomachs drawing chalk daisies and smiley faces on the cracked pavement. When we were done, fields of dusty flowers poured from the large front door and stopped at the drooping chain that kept Estrella and the other children from wondering back into their old world in the red-light district of Tijuana. Or perhaps it was to keep their old world from wondering back in. Either way, the single, metal, linked line hardly seemed efficient to accomplish either task; it was just another porous borderline between two countries.
Once we had been playing with orange peels, inserting the wedges over our teeth and making big fake orange smiles, when Estrella began squealing and running towards the start of the chain-linked boundary. A woman was hovering, not knowing what side she belonged on. She noticed Estrella running toward her, but before the little girl could get too close; the woman was absorbed back into all the things that kept her away. I had never seen Estrella cry like that. Even with such childlike understanding, she was aware that all she had been left with was chalk flowers, some orange peels, and myself. And I was a callow replacement for what she was missing. Like my little friend, I was stuck inelegantly between a little girl and a grown-up. Only I had abandoned “princesa” long ago.
I left too, not maliciously, but like her vanishing mother, drowning in all the things that kept me away. By the time I returned, I had crossed many borders, not all physical or requiring passports, but none with customs as personal as at that linked-chain. The yard still hummed with children, but Estrella was gone. Her mom had been successful in her recovery program, had gotten a job and moved away from the dangerous downtown. Estrella had moved home with her family. She had crossed the fence.
I still go visit, and use the chalk she left behind to draw dusty flowers with boys whose pants are too small. I enjoy missing her. Someday I’ll join her on the other side.