Creative Nonfiction: Pyramid of the Sun by Aubrey Lozano-Cofield
Pyramid of The Sun
By Aubrey Lozano-Cofield
It’s the summer of 2005, two years before Natalie’s death, when we travel south from Texas to our father’s home country of Mexico. This memory, for me, is important. It marks the last of many things.
The only other family trips we’d taken up till then were to the Texas coast, about two hours from where we lived in San Antonio. We always stayed in a Red Roof Inn Motel, usually just for the weekend. If you know anything about Texas beaches, you know the water is burnt umber, and in the summer there’s no real relief when your feet go from scorching hot sand to water because the water is likely only slightly cooler than the sand and air. But still, in reflection, it sits fondly with me.
This time we’re preparing for a 15-hour drive across the border, stopping along the way to stay with friends and family. Domanick, our brother, is the oldest, then it’s me, Natalie, and Sophia, the baby. Dad and mom sit in the front of our blue dodge van, a box television on the floor between them. Natalie and I aren’t even two years apart and we fight like it. We’re both debating who gets middle row because there’s more legroom and better access to the VHS player. “My knee hurts!” Natalie insists and so I digress, making my way to the back of the van with Domanick. I pull out my CD player and slide in Jewel’s new album Pieces of You. The same 8 songs play on repeat for hours as I zone in and out of daydreams, constructing my future through the optimistic lens of innocence.
When Natalie was 2 my mom was swinging her in our backyard when the sun caught her eye just right, illuminating a faint grey dot on Natalie’s cornea. Natalie was diagnosed at 2 years old with retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye. That was 9 years before the trip. A prosthetic eye, routine checkups, and no cancer. Once cancer is a tangible reality, not just a St. Judes commercial, it doesn’t matter how far you are from it, every bump, every ache is unsettling. Especially for a mother. Natalie’s knee pain got progressively worse in the weeks leading up to the trip and I could sense my mom at war in her mind.
There’s a clear shift when you cross the border from the US into Mexico. The country is alive, the streets crowded with people on foot, dogs without leashes, merchants selling Talavera pottery, and sarapes next to shoes you’d see in the states. We buy Canal chewing gum from the kid at the stoplight while his older brother washes our windshield. I can’t stop staring at all the people that look like me but also look nothing like me. A few kids tried hopping on the van and dad laughed at our initial shock. Dad is speaking his native language and it sounds like music the way he doesn’t get stuck on a word, the way he does when he speaks English. His Spanish is so smooth it rolls. Some buildings could use a good power wash, but the street food smells so good, like grilled onions and homemade corn tortillas. Mom is watching us from the rearview mirror, this isn’t where she was born but it’s part of us, and it’s part of her.
We made our way to a town called Tula, Hidalgo in central Mexico, where my father grew up. Tula is a small town with a river and scattered springs where my dad played as a kid. We came to explore the backdrop of my dad’s childhood stories and to see the Toltec ruins.
A few days after arriving in Tula we drove an hour south to San Juan Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city about 30 miles from Mexico City that houses one of the largest pyramids in the Western Hemisphere.
My dad’s friend Mario came as a sort of guide. Mario is a wealthy hotel owner and met my dad when they both led similar lives. Now my dad has a small cottage home in Texas that his wife pays the mortgage on, and Mario has hotels and many homes throughout two countries, but they grew up together and their bond is like family.
Our backyard was double the size of our small two-bedroom home where the six of us lived. The grass was green in our patch of South Texas, except for under the second-hand swing set missing a trapeze bar and one swing. Who cares though, we used the whole thing like monkey bars.
My dad liked watering the grass, but only at night when the heat somewhat let down and you could inhale the air without suffocating. It was the thing he complained about the most, the darn South Texas heat. He missed Tula, where the temperatures stayed about 70 degrees year-round.
When we first moved in, mom planted two rose bushes against the backyard porch. I remember my mom’s messy bun and the way she handled the plants carefully while Natalie and I ran around with gloves and plastic shovels. After years of renting houses and apartments (including the rat-infested one in Mexico that single-handedly sparked mom’s phobia of rats), she finally owned a home. It was small but in a good neighborhood. She liked the idea that we’d grow up in one house, in the same city as she did.
Mom started working long hours shortly after she planted the roses and didn’t have time to maintain them anymore. The rose bushes eventually grew much taller than us, towering and resting wild against the small porch. We didn’t mind. They were the best hiding spots because no one wanted to search through the thorny stems.
Our eternal backyard is useless without an imagination.
That’s how we ran around. Imagining forests and secret passageways. Building tree houses from old boogie boards, and sticks from the neighbor’s tree that hung over our fence. The fence with a few pieces of board missing, where Bo, the next-door neighbor’s dog digs, and we play with his paws.
In the same yard, we took mud baths, where the grass never grew again. On windy days we’d sway from one end of the yard to the other yelling “we’re back, we’re back on Windy Island!” Rain was the most magical. Rain was for playing, not for staying in. We’d lift our faces upward to catch the water in our mouths and the water became a part of us, something connecting us to the clouds, a cycle, something endless.
We walked through the grounds passing first The Pyramid of The Moon. Mario pointed out the areas where bodies were buried. He told us that this is where our ancestors roamed. Behind my daydreams of what this city must have looked like, Natalie complained about her swelling knee. My mom’s eyes watered, and she looked at my dad, maybe we should stop.
No, it’ll be ok, my dad said, I’ll carry her.
The next day mom would convince dad to take her to a local doctor. The X-rays revealed a mass, and the mass would be confirmed malignant when we got back to the states. Cancer again. At the Teotihuacan ruins, we exist unaware, an innocence preserved, and I can’t get it out of my head, one side of a major shift.
We reached the bottom of The Pyramid of The Sun, 248 uneven steps to the top. My dad insisted we make the trip up. He put Natalie on his back and the seven of us ascended.
The incline was steep. The higher the steps the more narrow and uneven they became. About halfway up we had to crawl, using our hands and knees to grip each jagged corner. It’s so steep you were forced to submit to it, bowing as you humbly make your way up. Dad and Natalie reached the top last. Natalie hung on to my dad’s back like a little monkey, her eyes open and searching, but not scared.
The wind blew harder at the top, 216 feet up. We looked out and below us. We all stood there. The six of us looked out at a city still standing, its inhabitants long gone, the blood of our ancestors within us. We existed on a pyramid that rose and stood through so much death, long before Natalie was born. Had we known this would be our last family trip with the complete crew of six, maybe we would’ve done something in reverence to the power of who were then, who we’d never be again. But that’s also the power of “lasts”, they’re better appreciated as a feeling you’ll never quite get back, when remembering is the only way there.