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David and His 26 Roommates


David’s return to Mexico was more shocking than his first days in Manhattan. “The economic situation was worse than when I left. My family was hardly eating. We couldn’t afford meat. To get a meal together, my mom would go to one store, then another, looking for bargains and sales. She was using spoiled fruit and vegetables. There was nothing from one day to the next. I no longer felt that my home was in Mexico. Plus, I just missed everything about New York.”

While David watched in horror as his mother cooked rotten onions, Diana called from Colombia. She too was chilled by life back home, not just the poverty but also the monotony compared with New York. They came up with a plan: They would meet in Mexico, hire the same coyote, and sneak north together. This time, there was no used-car capital to finance the return, so David would have to borrow from a friend. The coyote’s fee had gone up from five years earlier: Now it was $2,000.

Last fall, they set their plan in motion—and immediately ran into trouble. Diana flew to Mexico City, but Immigration authorities turned her back at the airport. Thinking she’d never return to America, she had flown from New York to Colombia on her long-expired visa, which immediately alerted authorities that she’d been in the States illegally. She was forced to return to Colombia and apply for another U.S. visa.

Heartbroken, David returned to New York alone. The fish market had gone out of business in his absence, but the West Village restaurant had finished its remodeling and took him back, promoting him from delivery boy to cook’s assistant (at a wage still only slightly more than minimum). His cheap basement space was still available, too. His life is pretty much the same as when he left it—except Diana’s not here.

Since he’s been back, David has become a habitué of those little Washington Heights storefronts with lines of wooden phone booths. From there, he places calls to Diana in Colombia—at a cost of $10 to $20 each. They’ve been waiting to hear from the U.S. Consulate about a new tourist visa for Diana, but since she abused her last visa, it’s hard to imagine the consulate’s accommodating her. In a pinch, Diana thinks she could get a visa from Spain. But David is desperate to stay in New York. At work, on the subway, lying on his bunk bed, he’s been hatching complicated schemes involving flying to Colombia, marrying Diana, bringing her to Mexico, and paying the coyote $4,000 for the two of them. He figures it would cost $10,000 to cover all the flights and the smuggling fees.

A few weeks ago, Diana was due to hear about the consular decision, and David called to learn their fate.

“Diana? What’s wrong?” he said into the receiver. “Oh, no, that’s bad! ¡Ay, mujer! I’ve been thinking that this is my fault—if I’d gone straight after you in Colombia when I was in Mexico, you’d be here now. Dianita, I’d like to come for you, to do everything for you!”

He paused while she spoke. “Well, listen. I’ve been calling everyone I trust. I’ve got these friends. They could get us across the border. But the best time to avoid the authorities is a big holiday season, like between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s almost next year. Besides, it will take me that long to save the money . . . No, don’t worry about the expense. I’d pay.

“Spain? Yeah, I understand you’re in a hurry. But you’re always in a hurry . . . I’m not criticizing! It’s just something I’ve noticed . . . Okay, let’s change the subject.

“If I come for you, I want to make it clear up front that you wouldn’t have to feel obligated to me. I don’t want you to think I’m taking advantage; this is just something I want to do for you. Remember when I told you I wanted to be with you? And you said you were thinking more about your son? That’s what I liked about you—that you talked to me honestly.”

Suddenly David looked up, puzzled. The connection had gone dead—Diana’s little boy had hung up the phone. David kept trying to call back, but a recording said there were too many calls to Colombia just then. Try again later when the line wasn’t so jammed.

He had two hours to kill before starting his shift at the restaurant and nowhere else to go. So David went back home to the basement—with the roommates watching telenovelas and the doves cooing and the family in the kitchen and someone in the bathroom and Gato trying to drum up a basketball game. It was crowded, but David felt very lonely.


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