Daughters of the Republic

There are not one but two women who are credited with saving the Alamo. Not the battle, which was lost from the start, but the record of it—the convent and church in San Antonio. Both Clara Driscoll and Adina de Zavala are known primarily for their work to keep the building intact. Clara Driscoll is referred to as the “Savior of the Alamo,” while de Zavala is called the “Crusader for the Alamo.” We don’t, of course, know what the site would be without one or both of these women, but we also don’t know what those women would have been without the Alamo to save.

It’s hard to tell the story without deciding which woman did more for history. In the tradition of historical tour guides everywhere, I’m asked not to really split hairs about which one is the true savior of the Alamo. As far as taking sides goes, we’re more or less asked to reiterate that those who want to destroy history are bad and those who want to preserve it are good. We drive that point home by telling how de Zavala protested the building’s possible sale by barricading herself inside the building for three days.

When I tell the story to groups of children, I make sure to say right where you’re standing right now, this woman locked herself inside and she told the police to go away. The specific site of history apparently matters quite a bit.

The site of the Alamo is now looked after by Daughters of the Republic. Any woman can join, so long as she is over sixteen and can prove descent from Texas’ original freedom fighters. I’m one of them. A daughter, not a freedom fighter. All that means now is that I know this history and repeat it to people who call the DRT and want somebody to walk them through it. These days there’s not that much to see on a tour, what with the building still crumbling and the town grown up so much around it. Check out the Ripley’s across the street. What was in a place first inevitably becomes the anachronism. There are only stories to tell. This makes me feel somewhat like Scheherazade and somewhat like an army recruiter. Like the army, the sisterhood of the DRT is a clever way of hiding the fact that we are on our own, all of us. It’s not so much that we all remember the Alamo, but that, like all history, we are doomed to either repeat it or to spend the whole future fighting over versions of the past.

Some people come to the Alamo church asking questions about John Wayne. They point out things they recognize from his movie. I feel bad when I have to tell them during the tour that the movies aren’t filmed here. There’s an entirely separate attraction where that happens, a whole fake Alamo that’s used entirely for movies. I make this sound like it’s nothing but a good thing. This way our building stays intact, and the people who make the movies can do whatever they want to their copy of the Alamo. Even—I say with a sense of wonder—make it look like the Alamo is on the moon! I’ve gotten used to speaking for children. I don’t say producer or director or even actor. I say people who make the movies. I’ve been trying to re-cast my own life in these terms. Not rivals or friends or enemies, but people defined by whatever important action they perform. I wonder if this would make things easier. This way I might even get to be friends with her, The Girl Who Loved the Man I Loved.

This way I might forget this detail: he never calls me an ex-girlfriend. I do not even have that one place-marker with which to fix me in relation to our past. What I was, what we were. When I died, he buried me next to him but didn’t have the decency to mark my grave. This is what I will tell people who ask why we didn’t work it out. This explains that while he may or may not be a Bad Man, he has done a terrible thing.

This also creates a clear distinction between me and his ex-girlfriend. I don’t know precisely how her job duties were different than mine. Our hair looks the same, but we’re not the same. She names her dogs after gemstones and has a weakness for jobs requiring uniforms that look like maxi pads. She loves taking pictures of herself. I hate the way I look. Every pore and blotch on my skin shows. Because really, down deep, what’s true is this: if both of us died, then only pictures would remain. And he would look at the prettier ones, right, so therefore she would win, even if we died at the exact same moment. I’m not sure how that would happen. I don’t know if, when we died, my arm would end up being around her, or if I would have just tried on her boots.

After Adina de Zavala barricaded herself inside the Alamo for three days, a special edition of sheet music for “Remember the Alamo” was released. We’ll never surrender and ever with liberty be, all with her face on the front in a little oval, just like a cameo. A pretty face is like grape flavoring in cough syrup. It just helps. In de Zavala’s time, people kind of had forgotten the Alamo, at least the physical parts of it. If the Alamo had been a woman, people would have said things like she’s really let herself go, perhaps an apt comparison for a nunnery/church-cum-battleground that had spent nearly a century being passed back and forth between the Catholic Church and various factions of the army. No wonder the site was so confused by the time Driscoll and de Zavala got involved. Sometimes when I come here early enough, I pretend the rest of San Antonio doesn’t exist yet, and I look at the little windows which are nothing more than black rectangles, and I think this is all why the façade is so sad. As a historian, I should claim the sadness is for the bloodshed during the Texan struggle for liberation. Secretly I think what’s saddest is that the building only stands because it was the site of so much pain. Secretly I think it’s sad that’s why two women have fought so hard for it. Secretly I think it’s sad I could never do the same.

Even though the Texan soldiers knew they would lose, they still were willing to give up their lives here. They wanted to be free. I explain this in my most patient tone. The Mexican army had to spend time fighting the Texan soldiers. While they were doing this, other Texan soldiers could gather supplies and get ready for another battle.

What is a battle? What supplies would a soldier need in a war? Can you find Mexico on a map? When I give tours just to school groups, I ask variants of these questions. Sometimes there’s a kid whose eyes light up at the gory parts. I always try to work in a little extra blood for those kids, and I find myself making the story of the siege shorter than usual. The only thing worse than waiting is having to hear a story about waiting.

Here things get complicated. Was the Alamo about battling or about waiting? The only reason for the Tejano forces to hold out as long as they did was to make the Mexican forces wait. I’m sure a lot of this was boring.

Knowing how this ended, as we do, it’s remarkably easy to take sides. You have the ending and therefore all the facts seem to point inevitably to that end, even if there’s a whole other set of facts that point to a different end. There’s a theory that’s actually a fact and referred to as a paradox about how photons work. It has something to do with splitting one and throwing half into kingdom come and letting the other just stay put, and they keep blinking the same. The part that is always left out is what else each photon half is doing, like does each half go on blinking the same even when they congeal to something else?

I don’t know if the ex-girlfriend would think of me that way, just another photon, another little piece of light. She might if she knew the truth about me.

What’s that, dear? You’re having dinner with who? Oh, just an old friend. No need to worry then. Just An Old Friend does not taste his semen whenever she sees a mulberry tree. Just An Old Friend never blew him near a mulberry tree, or anywhere.

In this way, I can slip below the radar. But what do I do if I want to set off alarms?

The first time he really expressed ambivalence to me, I thought we were getting somewhere new. I opened the door. He said he couldn’t decide if he should kiss me all over or throw me down and fuck the hell out of me. I said he should yes.

Ex-girlfriends are allowed to ask certain questions and not others. They cannot ask if their loves are seeing someone or what it’s like. Instead, it’s best to refer to vacation plans and make an inference accordingly. If he is going to the Midwest, he is probably very much in love. More exotic locales are tricky, as they could either be about bachelor-esque escapism or about romance. Here a delicate touch must be used to choose the questions. And if the ex-girlfriend somehow finds out about the girls like me who are not ex-girlfriends, those questions must be even more precise. It is not acceptable to ask did you fuck her. It is, however, appropriate to ask if he was cold that winter.

I was straddling him once when his phone rang. He grabbed at it and started to answer before he realized he was still inside of me. “Force of habit,” he said guiltily. I didn’t know to which part he was referring. But I held him inside me. I tried to think of a rhyme to say while I tried to grip him through the whole conversation. Kegel rhymes with bagel was the only one and a terrible mantra at that because what is less sexy than a bagel, but I said it over and over like a mantra anyway. He hung up the phone. I ground down on him. We commenced and finished our coitus.

It was her calling, of course. He said he was in the middle of something.

One of the things people seem to find endlessly funny is acting like they’ve confused the site of the Alamo with Alamo rental car service. They’ll walk up to someone who works on the grounds and say, “Um, I ordered a mid-size” or something like that. When nobody laughs, they think it’s because we take history too seriously. Not just that we’ve heard this before, all of us, over and over. As if history is the same as a nondescript vehicle that can be taken someplace by a stranger and abandoned for some other stranger to maneuver.

I don’t like driving rental cars, but I am good at it. I like to read the renters’ policy and substitute his name for the company. He is not responsible for personal effects left behind. He is unlimited mileage for this same price. Once, driving a rental car, I had my radio scanning the stations. A morning talk show host was telling a joke. He said, What’s the best kind of ex-girlfriend? And just then, the station switched to the news where a reporter was saying a civil war.

When Adina de Zavala was locked inside the Alamo, the “official” rule was that nobody was allowed to bring her food or water. This wasn’t strongly enforced, so I’d imagine she ate just fine, if not better than usual. I’m not sure what Clara Driscoll was doing during those particular days, but I know she spent a lot of time writing stories and setting up foundations. She must have done that while de Zavala was barricaded inside the Alamo and getting her picture on sheet music. Apparently sometimes you can get famous for waiting.

Maybe what’s worst about waiting is never knowing when or if it will stop. When you break up, just regular break up, no divorce with actual lawyers or anything, there’s nothing to really let you know things are over. No evidence but whatever you collect that day, and maybe a toothbrush or a spare pair of eyeglasses. And even then, you don’t know if you gave up too soon and should have waited longer or if now is really when the waiting starts. During the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to be a more humane form of capital punishment. I don’t know what method came before. I’d imagine it was something indeterminate. Maybe you were simply told you could no longer be of any use to France, but they didn’t kill you or let you ever leave the country.

They say funerals are for the living, and I’d believe it. So too are many of the facts around history. The first example of this that comes to mind is the line drawn in the sand at the Battle of the Alamo. The story goes that the Tejano colonel, William Barrett Travis, already knew that his whole army would most likely die because they lacked the resources to survive. He drew a line in the sand and asked soldiers who were willing to die to cross it. Apparently all did but two, one of whom was injured and carried across on a stretcher. The other one allegedly ran away to Louisiana and lived a long, happy life. If this story tells anything, it’s that there’s a huge difference in dying for one’s country and openly being willing to die. The only survivor never said anything about the line in the sand. There’s nothing buried that can be unearthed. A story is not the same as an artifact. Lines in the sand are for the living.

Except this much I know: given the nature of Texas’ geological makeup, it probably wasn’t sand but ordinary dirt. Through some translation or error or poetic license, the substance in question became sand, which is even easier to blow away and which obviously makes people think of time. Perhaps more importantly, it’s easy to alter: a line in the sand can be changed so easily. All it takes is a back to be turned, a wind to change, one person to go away for a little while.

During the time we were fucking, I lived in six different places. Six times I wrapped each yellow daisy dish in newspaper, six times I unwrapped each yellow daisy dish, six times I nested the yellow daisy dishes in each other. Later I gave up and pitched the whole set unwashed. I couldn’t even be bothered to donate them. Back in my yellow daisy dish days, he only lived in one house. I would come and go—different states, different countries, different men—but mostly I was coming back, over and over, like reading the same book again and again. I would begin by handling him gently as if I were afraid I could change the ending by how zealous or involved I was. I always ended up tearing through the pages. There were the familiar parts, like how his collarbone had this slight discoloration and there was a little spot on his chin that never got stubbly, even when he didn’t shave for a few days. Then there were the surprises, whole passages forgotten or never known. He sings Sesame Street covers of classic rock songs in the shower and thinks walnuts are bad luck. He can’t pass a street musician without giving a dollar. He always keeps a fresh pair of socks with him in case he walks through a puddle. He knows I’m the one and without even talking about it, we’ll decide to be together for real once I learn to stay in one place. The story is one I can now call a fiction with a bitterness that comes and goes, considering the ending did, after all, change. During all this time, he had only four hangovers. In retrospect, I think these were probably the only days I really knew him.

I never bought any of those books with horrific titles like Men and How They Think, but I’ve read them in the bookstore. There was one that had a whole chapter devoted to what the back panel called a “frank discussion of the threesome in modern life.” There was nothing particularly modern about it. The author of this book believed that most men did, in fact, fantasize about threesomes. The author of this book was a man. He didn’t talk about any threesomes he’d had, but he told this blustery anecdote about an embarrassing situation that occurred in the ice cream section of a local grocery store.

I don’t know if he—my ex who is not really my ex, according to our language—fantasized about having both of us, or any two girls, with him at once. He said he didn’t, but I’m not sure he would have told me if he did. According to this therapist, men were generally terrified of women, especially when their “sexual ego” was at stake. The pressure to please a woman (“maximize one’s sexual performance”) was immense, what with the already heavy pressure of modern living, the author said, citing traffic jams and project deadlines as contributing stressors. Therefore, the reality of pleasuring two women would be nerve-wracking enough to cause even the most confident man to have a full-blown meltdown. So in all actuality, the threesome fantasy was a narcissistic fantasy about overcoming one’s anxieties. I looked at the author’s photo and pictured him watching a porno movie with a title like Three’s Company, and I imagined his blood pressure dropping as the movie’s hero exited one woman and entered another.

The point is not that every man does or doesn’t have those fantasies, but my lover claimed he never did. He thought it would be pick one: unfair, overwhelming, confusing, distracting, dirty.

One day she had happened to call while we were getting ready for brunch. He didn’t talk long to her, but he may as well have. Over brunch, he mentioned having been an altar boy, something I’d never known about him. Somehow I connected that confession to the fact that he’d talked to her that day, like she could bring out parts of his past that weren’t exactly secret but also hadn’t ever been shown to me.

She probably doesn’t know why he doesn’t want a threesome, though. If she knows anything about it, she probably knows that he doesn’t want one, and that’s good. He’s not like the other men. He is Hers. She has drawn a line in the sand, no matter that I’ve been on the other side already.

When he comes to town one day, I don’t ask why. When he calls and says he wants to have coffee with me, I don’t ask why. I ask what time is good for him.

I’m meeting with some people first, a group of Montessori school children. They are precocious and clearly brainwashed by hippie parents. They keep asking me these hard questions about war and death. To change the subject, I ask to see the replica of the Alamo their teacher tells me they’ve made. It is papier-mâché and lumpy but still recognizable despite its slight resemblance to the Superdome. I take them across the street to see the little piece of the original wall, totally unrenovated, that’s preserved in a tiny Plexiglass box near the Riverwalk entrance. They are most excited about standing up very tall and looking into a little box to see something, and they are also fanatical about holding hands with their field trip buddies.

We go back to the convent and I finish the tour. The students all clap. One little girl hugs my knees. One boy tells his teacher very loudly that I’m pretty. There’s nothing left to do but walk out into the streets of San Antonio for coffee. It always surprises me how I can just walk out of the old convent into an ordinary city. There’s no transition from the past to the present.

He’s reading when I get there. It’s a Pulitzer-winner, a book of essays that I always imagined I’d find terrible. I don’t know if he promised someone he’d read it or if he’s reading it for himself. He does that, reads books “for” other people. It’s funny.

I don’t ask him how the book is. I smile because for a moment I am really, sincerely, actually, happy to see him. I see him think lover the same way an image of George Washington makes me think president. This is all he has in common with George Washington, but it’s enough to throw me for a moment.

“Good book?” I ask. Before he can answer, I change the subject. “Wait. I need coffee before I can think about essays.”

I buy my coffee, not looking back at him. This is the kind of ultra-modern, manufactured urban coffeehouse with unnecessary chrome and too many shiny things, too much wall art made of jagged, cut-up pieces of metal. There’s a TV mounted in one corner. The sound is off and it’s fixed to a news channel. As soon as I start to read the captions at the bottom of the screen, the image switches to a commercial for cholesterol medicine. The man playing the doctor is an actor I last saw play an effeminate wedding planner on a sitcom.

When I sit down, he hasn’t picked up his book again even though I took my time at the counter. We start talking, gradually, and I know he is not my lover because, rather than just talking, we are talking about what things are new in our lives. We sum up months of our lives in broad strokes: one sweeping, vague adjective to cover spans of our lives that were probably as impossible to distill as any phase in anybody’s life.

But I know he is my lover because when I look for glimpses of his old life, they are there. When he starts any sentence, I can still feel a little catch in my breath where I’m waiting for her to come up or not come up. I work in the names of birthstones to see if he’ll mention her dog. I tell him there’s no photography allowed inside the Alamo and wait for him to say, “speaking of photographs.” He gives me nothing, so I talk about the past, the old past. I tell him about the Alamo. I use my kid-vocabulary: people who make the movies, people who wanted to tear it down.

“How long have you been giving tours?” he asks.

I shrug into a drop of coffee left on a spoon. “A year and a half,” I say.

“Was that something you wanted to do before?”

“Yes and no. I never really thought about it before, but I already knew so much about the history, and I really like entertaining the children. Plus it seemed important that I do it since the DRT are the ones who keep up the property now.”

“The DRT? The Department of—”

“Daughters of the Republic of Texas,” I answer. “Women who are descended from fighters during the battle.”

“Did you ever tell me you that about you?”

“I might have. I’m not sure. But I’ve been a member since high school, officially.” Here I suddenly bring my eyes up to meet his. My gaze is even, still, perfect, lover-less. “So I would have been a member back when you and I used to hang out.”

The words hang out echo, at least for me. I expect to see their trajectory sketched into the air like the motion lines on cartoon that follow some act of violence.

“It’s okay,” I go on. “That was the past. I don’t expect you to remember it.” My tone this time is benevolent, all-generous.

He chuckles—definitely a chuckle and not a laugh. “It’s a good thing you’re the historian, then,” he says. Congratulatory.

There’s a silence that isn’t exactly silence but is our silence. The coffee shop TV is not shouting headlines. There is a sign telling customers that the staff would appreciate it if customers put away their own dishes. My cup is not clanking in its saucer. The tension stands stagnant between us. I wonder if this is what is meant by dynamic equilibrium. Nothing changes; everything shifts from side to side. I wonder if this is what he meant by calling me a historian, that I shift stories from dirt to air and back again. I wonder if this is what I meant by silence.

The generic trill of a cell phone rings out from somewhere. He reaches into his pocket. “I have to take this,” he says.  

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