Oh, DanielaI placed my fingertips on the computer keys and typed I MISS YOU. Maybe it was silly that I still wrote to my cousin Hugo on Facebook, since he would never be able to read my messages again. He had been murdered on March 6, 2011 at a Juarez Bar called El Muro. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time seemed customary in the city of Juarez, which is the most dangerous city in the world due to its crime and ongoing drug war. I gazed out the dusty window at the line of cars parked in front, with their price written on the windshield. My boyfriend Leo had asked me to watch out for customers, but not a soul had walked into the car-lot all day.
The afternoon was hot, stale, and strangely eerie. I was not accustomed to being alone. I checked my wrist- watch and it was only 2:31 p.m. Time was passing by much too slow. To change the scene, I decided to take a walk around the lot. As I made my way out of the office, a red flash caught the corner of my eye. Parked underneath the car-port was the sleekest car on the lot. It was a shiny, red, immaculate, and stunning 1959 Chevy Corvette convertible. Leo referred to that car as “the untouchable.”His father had purchased it in an auction a few years back. He had it parked only for display. I had begged Leo several times to give me a ride on it but he always refused. Ironically, the car was too great to be driven. The rebel in me started to stir up. Visuals of finding the key and driving the vehicle began to cross my mind. More than likely Leo and his dad would find out and I didn’t want to have problems. As I turned my back on the vehicle and walked away I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Would they find out?” Intuitively I made my way back into the office and walked towards the safe. A quick turn of the combination opened up the metal door. With shaking hands, I grabbed the keys. I assured myself that a few circles around the car-lot were no big deal. Like a child about to play with a new toy, I anxiously shut the safe, and ran to the car. The driver-side door opened with a groan. A rush of dust scurried out of the car like a bird set free from its cage. The red leather interior was in exceptional condition. I plopped down on the seat, and gently touched the thin steering wheel. With butterflies in my stomach, I placed the weathered silver key into the ignition, and turned the car on.
The motor hesitated to start. After a small screech I heard nothing. The car didn’t start. Clearly after being parked for so many years the battery was probably dead. So much for being a rebel, the car didn’t even run. As I reached for the car handle to get out I noticed something strange. It was pitch-dark outside. Through the darkness I could see that all the cars were gone. As I sat there wide-eyed, the sense of panic began to fill my body. What was happening? I closed my eyes for a moment in hopes that I was just imagining things. When I opened them again I happened to catch my reflection in the rear-view mirror. To my horror I was not myself. It was my face but my dark long hair was somehow pinned up into short curls. My lips had ruby-red lipstick on. I also had thick fake lashes on. I looked down to find that I had a whole new outfit as well. I was wearing what seemed to be a black dress with white polka-dots all over. Over my shoulders I had on a black fur-type shrug. How could this be possible? Out of nowhere the sound of music began to play. As I peered through the windshield I could see I was parked in front of a brown looking building. There was a tattered sign dimly lit that said Surf. I was so shocked I couldn’t even scream. After what seemed like centuries I gathered the courage to step out of the car. Maybe inside someone would help me figure out what was happening.
When I planted my foot on the ground not only did I notice my new red heels but that there was snow. Where was I? Not in El Paso that was for sure. As I carefully walked towards the main entrance, the sound of music became louder. I slowly pulled the handle of the old white door, afraid of what I would face inside. When I peeked in I saw the room was large and brightly lit. It had wooden worn-down floors with plain white walls. When I stepped in, all of a sudden the music went silent. I halted in place unsure of what was next. Suddenly piercing through the silence was the beat of a drum-roll. A spotlight shined upon a large elevated stage and the burgundy curtains pulled open. The strings of a guitar began to play and stepping onto the stage was a young Hispanic man with a bright smile. As I stood there stiff and overwhelmed by emotions, Ritchie Valens began to sing La Bamba.
Ritchie was wearing a black wool suit. He had on a crisp white collar under-shirt. His dark hair was neatly combed with a small curl coming down his fore-head. It was like John Travolta’s hair-style in the movie Grease. His tan skin gleamed under the bright light. He swayed his body to the music seeming to enjoy every beat. When he hit the high notes he closed his eyes and crinkled his face. Every so often he glanced at me and winked. His shiny brown guitar hung across his body. He made it seem simple to play, yet his sound was so dynamic. His voice sounded so smooth and soulful. At times he played and sang. At other times he let his guitar swing to his side while he clung the silver microphone. Since I was familiar with the song, I recognized it was close to ending. With one last upbeat phrase Ritchie ended the song. He waved and smiled into the invisible crowd and took off his guitar. I stood in place unable to grasp what I had just witnessed.
“What? I don’t even get a clap for that?” looking over at my direction with a sheepish smile on his face. He made his way down the stage and began to walk towards me.
“Hello there! I’m Ritchie, what’s your name?”
I stood frozen deeply afraid at him getting any closer. Could it be I was seeing a ghost? Ritchie Valens was dead and that was a fact. Yet, he was walking towards me. I thought of running but where to go? Obviously I had entered another dimension.
“Hi,” I managed to get a hoarse whisper out. He stopped two feet in front of me and extended out his left hand to shake mine. My tingly, shaking right-arm extended out and grasped his warm hand. “You sure are a quiet one,” his white gleaming teeth beamed from his sweet childish smile. Just then I knew I was not in harm’s way. His smile was as comforting as an angel’s.
“Wanna have a seat?” he motioned towards the stage.
Without saying yes I stepped forward and we walked side by side to the stage. I hopped onto it and looked around at the huge ballroom before me. On all four corners were a pair of fake palm trees with fake sand underneath them. The ceiling was painted brigh
“I’m not in El Paso am I? Ritchie laughed loudly and shook his head “Nope, you’re in Iowa sweetheart. You’re at the Winter Dance Party and it’s 1959.”
I jolted when I heard the year. How could this be? And why was this happening to me? Normally I was a sane person so how could my brain just run off the tracks this way.
“You still haven’t told me your name.”
I managed to swallow the knot in my throat and answer. “My name is Daniela.”
He smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder reassuringly. Ritchie began asking me questions about me and where I was from. It seemed so bizarre, but the more we talked the more I put aside the fact he was a dead person and I was far from reality. I focused on the surreal, unique, and magical moment we were sharing. He seemed very interested in the music we listened to in this era. He squealed with happiness to know that his music generation had not been forgotten. Singers like him, and many others still played on the radio. What enthused him the most, was the fact that there was a movie made about his musical career. He asked me if the actor that portrayed him in the movie resembled him.
“Not exactly, Ritchie.”
“So he was better looking huh?”
We both started laughing like childhood pals until tears streamed down our face. We went silent as we tried to catch our breath.
“You know, not everything is great in my world,” I said in a solemn voice.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well I live in a border-town right next to Juarez, Mexico. Right now there is a drug-war going on between two rival cartels there. More than six-thousand people have been killed in the past two years. And there are over eight-thousand orphans because of that in the city.”
Ritchie looked straight ahead, pondering on the madness I was describing. I kept explaining how and why the drug war started. He periodically nodded his head as I passionately released my frustration with the Mexican justice system.
“The worst part is, since there is no clear authority in the city, crime altogether has risen. Everyone is out to kill everyone it seems. You know, my cousin was murdered not too long ago in Juarez,” I stopped my ramble with that last statement. If I continued, I knew I would start to cry.
“It seems to me that these criminals you speak of don’t know the true meaning of life. Life is beautiful, and it’s to be cherished. No amount of money or power can ever replace the blessing it is to wake up every day and know anything is possible,” his words were tender and deep. I knew they came from a place of sadness. After-all, Ritchie had died in a plane accident at the age of seventeen. His life, and possibilities, had just begun.
“How old was your cousin?”
“He was twenty-two.”
“How did he die?”
“He was shot four times in an attempted robbery.”
“You tell me of all these innocent people dying or being displaced, don’t just sit back and watch it happen,” his words were intense and loud.
“Ritchie, you don’t understand. How can one person make a difference?” he didn’t realize the power the cartels held over their country, or how anyone who intervenes has an automatic target on their back.
“You feel safe now, but the violence will reach where you are one day. You need to get your city to care. Organize rallies or groups to give all the innocent people a voice,” once again his voice was smooth, just like the melody of a serene song.
Ritchie did have a point. Living in El Paso, I always felt safe. Just because I wasn’t in immediate danger should I act indifferent to all those innocent people immobilized in fear. What I needed to do was help out. Even if I couldn’t stop the crime, I can get my community more aware of all the issues. I can donate clothing and money to the ever-growing orphanages. If we can all band together, the city of Juarez won’t feel so forgotten.
“I’m sorry about your cousin Daniela. If it helps, know he is a happy place,” he smiled kindly at me. His dark brown eyes twinkled under the stage lights.
“When we die, we go the last place we were genuinely happy. That is why I am here,” he extended his hand out to the empty ballroom.
“At the Winter Dance Party?” I was baffled at this newfound after-death information.
“Yes. This was my last concert and I felt on top of the world. I love it here. To you it may seem empty but I can see the crowd that watched me that night. I can still see them dance and sing my songs.” “So you play every night?” I asked, curiously.
“I have no sense of time in this place. I just play when it feels right. In fact, I feel like playing right now for your good-bye song.”
“Good-bye?” My heart began to pump with excitement.
“Your car is waiting,” he motioned outside.
I understood now that it was the car that had brought me back to 1959. Why it had brought me to Ritchie I was not sure, but I was happy that it did.
“Thank you for your advice. I’ll think of you always,” I extended my hand to shake his. For being a dead person, he had the warmest and most comforting handshake.
“Thank you for visiting,” he got up and walked towards center-stage. His fingertips brushed the strings and the sweet melody began to play. I knew that song, it was my favorite. His angel voice filled my ears, and as I walked away I heard he had changed some of the words. I looked back at him and we both laughed. As I opened the door the last I could hear him sing was “Oh, Daniela,” the Corvette was running and had the headlights on when I reached it. I sat inside and realized the Surf Ballroom had already disappeared. I looked through the rearview mirror and behind me were the passing cars on the familiar street of Alameda. Looking once more through the windshield I saw the familiar brown building of the car-lot. Daylight streamed through the windows, and just like that I was home. I grabbed the keys and reached for the handle. I was relieved to get back to my real life. As I stepped out I could see I was wearing my denim blue jeans again. I smirked when I realized I was still wearing my red high heels. To my surprise, when I walked into the office, I found Leo sitting on the desk chair with a big grin on his face.
“Leo, when did you get here?”
“A while ago. I see you took a ride in the car. Was it how you imagined?”
“It was actually better.”
“Well, that’s good,” he walked over to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“Welcome back,” he chuckled as he took the car keys from my hand and disappeared into the back office. I heard him open the safe and place them inside, exactly where they belonged.