Many years later, when I saw her again on a crowded subway car approaching Times Square, I thought back to the night when we both shared a piece of cardboard on the roof of a freight train moving through Mexico. Her hair was short now, much shorter than it was the first time I met her in Arriaga. We were staying the night in a chapel-turned-shelter, its white cement walls covered in faded posters promising salvation. She was as sleepless as I was.
“The ones who are the most restless are the ones fleeing,” she told me.
“Who are you fleeing from?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
At dawn we walked across the lawless and nameless countryside, avoiding checkpoints, and speaking little. The thick overgrowth gave way to loosely paved roads scattered with plastic bags that clung to the gates of cattle ranches. We reached the tracks at midday. I went looking for water in an abandoned rice cellar, and when I found her again, listening for the train, she smelled of grass and sweat.
“Your body is a credit card,” she said. “Cuerpomático. Use it to buy yourself a little safety.”
She gripped a piece of cardboard between her teeth, tucked a roll of string in her pocket, and we started running to match the speed of the coming train. I grabbed the ladder in front of the car and pulled my legs off before the wheels caught up. As I was climbing, I imagined her hair twisting in the machinery and pulling her head off, but she was the first to find a spot on the roof, hot to the touch, and claim it with the cardboard.
“For two,” she said, and we settled back-to-back. A few other migrants stared at us and shifted uncomfortably on the ridged fiberglass. Ankles tied to the holed surface, we crossed into Oaxaca at dusk, the clouds of mosquitos dissolving into the pine forest around us.
Now, when the subway car stopped between stations, before the conductor mumbled about a train directly ahead of us, I wondered if she, too, thought of the moment the freight train stopped and we saw flashlights blinking ahead of us. I wanted to ask her what happened after the garroteros shoved us with their rifles and asked for payment.
“The train is free,” was the last thing I remember her saying before they knocked me out. I wanted to tell her that if my ankles weren’t tied with her string, I would have slipped off the roof, sliced by the beast’s steel bite.
She was a tiny woman, folded between businessmen who rushed out at Times Square, and I lost sight of her on the platform. Before I could find out if she still traveled in shadows, if she still didn’t want to be noticed, the doors closed.