My first conscious act upon arriving in the Mexico City airport for the first time is to lock myself in a bathroom stall and cry.
I am twenty, a college sophomore on a study abroad trip, wearing a Grateful Dead shirt and Birkenstocks and a green bandana over my hair. And the idea of not seeing my boyfriend for three whole months terrifies me. I honestly think I won’t make it.
I finish crying and return to the gate, where I pretend to be asleep until we get on our flight to Merida. Later, I’ll remember nothing of the flight. What I will remember is stepping off the plane into the night of another country. The heat, and a smell of…differentness, of who-knows-what, of possibilities, of something-as-yet-unimaginable. I breathe deep and whatever it-is-rushes into my nose and lungs and heart.
One year ago, I was writing in my journal “Hasta la vista, Mexico!” and counting the minutes until I could go home. Already I’m back, this time with my brother in tow. We step out of the airport into a gray Mexico City afternoon, and I crow, “It smells like Mexico!”
My brother, four years younger and infinitely more practical, says, “All cities smell like this.” But that can’t be true.
We go to Pachuca, because the guidebooks make it sound cool. It’s really not, and I spend the entire first night hyperventilating and missing my boyfriend.
But the next morning, I’m up early and walk alone down a busy street that I will one day come to know well. The sun is just coming over the hills and rooftops: that soft, lemony light, with an edge of diesel exhaust. The high-heeled, sticky-haired office workers, the hunched old ladies in their embroidered gingham aprons, the strutting teenagers in school uniforms, the little girls in shiny patent leather shoes, and me.
My life is a mess, so I buy a bikini, take a week off from being a nanny and cheating girlfriend, and meet my friend Joanne in Cancun. Cancun-whoo-hoo-spring-break isn’t the point; Mexico is. We spend the first night in a hostel and take the first morning bus to Tulum.
On the second day we decide to search for a cenote: where the underground rivers that flow beneath the thin limestone shelf of the peninsula rise to the surface. We’d read about one—you were supposed to be able to take a bus, but there aren’t any buses running.
I stop a woman on the street and ask for directions. A shy toddler peeks at us from behind her legs. She explains how to get a taxi to the cenote, and how much we should be charged. I tell her, “Gracias, muy amable”—thank you, very nice of you—and feel crazed with happiness: that I tossed off that “muy amable” like, I think, a native speaker, that we’ve understood each other, that this Mexican woman and I are smiling at each other. I wish I could follow her home.
Later, I dangle my feet in the clear water of the cenote as Joanne swims around the dark edges where the water fades into shadow. Tiny ghost-colored fish nibble at my toes and I’m glad that, even though I have to go back and do something about my life, some tiny part of me will stay swimming here.
I’ve just spent a month in Oaxaca, drunk on Mexico: unable to sleep night after night because, ohmygod tomorrow when I wake up I get to be in Mexico! Bad things happened to me during that month, but they slid right off. Especially because every other night there was a call for me: this guy—this man—I met on the bus from Mexico City. He took me to his cousin’s wedding. He didn’t kiss me, and I was both glad and sad about that. He went back to Pachuca. He kept calling. Invited me to visit him.
So here I am, in his little turquoise rental house Pachuca—the city the guidebooks tricked my brother and I into visiting a couple years ago. It’s late, I’ve been on a bus all day. Out the window, the sparkle of street lamps all the way down into the valley. I sit in his one chair and we make happy, awkward conversation. He shows me to the bed, careful to point out the blankets he’s folded on the floor for himself.
The next night, and the night after that, we share the bed. And then I have to leave.
I’ll be back, a few months later, convinced that it’s The Last Time, that It Can’t Work, I’m Just Here to Say Goodbye. When we visit Ibis’s parents on the Oaxaca coast, I’ll stand looking at the reflection of the moon in the water tank and telling myself that I can never belong here, even as I long to. I’ll try as hard as I can not to fall in love too much, and fail. I’ll leave anyway, and immediately regret it.
I stay away.
Sometimes, though, at night, I run through it: the flight to Mexico City, the trek through the airport to the bus terminal, the Estrella Blanca bus to Pachuca, the taxi from the bus station to downtown, the bus up the hill to La Reforma, the walk up past the playing fields, a left, a sharp right on the little rutted dirt path, and then I’d be there: the funny little turquoise house where Ibis still lives.
“I could,” I think, clutching the Virgin of Guadalupe pendant I wear to remind me. “I could get there. I could still go.”
I almost go, once. I even buy a plane ticket, but I don’t use it. I don’t go, but I don’t forget, either.
It’s been a long time. More than a year. I’m a little stunned that Ibis is still single, that he even wanted to see me after all this time--though we’d never lost touch.
Now I’m up on the roof of the turquoise house with a blanket, trying to sleep off my cold, letting the sun soak into my bones. Ibis is working. I drift in and out of sleep, listening to roosters crow, ranchero music swing, the gas truck blast its scratchy “Gas Im-per-i-al,” the neighbor shriek for her daughter: “Baaaaaarrbaaaaaarraaaaaa!” Behind my eyelids, sunbursts and rose petals and stars. This time, I know I’ll be back.
At the beginning of our summer together, on the bus on the way to Salina Cruz to visit his parents, Ibis asked me to marry him. Here at the house where he grew up, in the green hammock, I told him, finally, yes. Now it’s the end of the summer, we’re back in Salina Cruz, it’s raining a warm soaking rain, and I’m curled up on the bed with hideous cramps. But I’m happy through the pain, looking around the bedroom, listening, clutching Ibis’s hand.
The huge wedding portrait of Ibis’s parents—faded, but you can still see how funny and young they look: his father, slightly dazed; his mother, scared and determined. The crucifix, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the watery turquoise walls of the bedroom, the smell of caldo de pollo, the buzz of Ibis’s mother’s sewing machine, the velvet of Pedro Infante’s voice on the radio, the pat of the rain on the roof, Ibis’s hand in mine. I think, “This is how it’s going to be.”
A blizzard of white confetti. Blonde Meghan and black-haired Montserrat throwing rose petals. Even my mom dancing—even my dad dancing. Ibis’s mom crying and cooking and crying and laughing. Ibis’s nephew—our nephew—shrieking for his mamá. Everybody eating and eating and eating.
A couple hours into the party it starts to rain. I hear El Ingeniero Jesus tell my dad, slowly and loudly, “La lluvia. Es. Buena. La lluvia. Es. Vida.” Rain is good. Rain is life.
Joanne and my brother drinking tequila with Ibis’s cousins. My friend Christa dancing with Ibis’s friend Gina. People we don’t even know wishing us well.
Late that night we walk my tipsy cousin up to his hotel room, and then run across the empty Zocalo, laughing. The white skirt of my dress flying. Stars. A man selling roses—“A rose for the bride?” We don’t have any money on us, but it doesn’t matter. There are stars and there are roses, and we see them.
We leave Pachuca for good and move in to our Oaxaca house in July. We paint the outside with the beautiful orange-brown earth of the yard, the inside butter yellow and moss green and the turquoise of the cenote in the Yucatan where I once let tiny fish nibble my toes.
We plant trees and pull up the grass. Against our will, we acquire a puppy, and then he dies and we cry for a week. Then, again against our will, we acquire another one.
I want to get out and double dig the garden and build a chicken coop, but I’m seven months pregnant and it’s unbelievably hot. I do what I can. One day I’m cutting dead leaves from the banana trees and I kill a scorpion with my machete. I’m thrilled by how hardcore that sounds, especially considering that I’m pregnant: “I killed a scorpion with a machete.”
Our baby will be born at home, in September, on the feast day of San Jeronimo, the patron saint of our new town. Later, when we get to know them, our neighbors will say we should have named him Jeronimo. We’ll name him Isaias. He’ll be a native of this place.
Whenever I go to California for a visit, I surprise people by kissing their cheeks in greeting—what always used to startle me, those first years in Mexico, has become reflex. Sometimes my English comes out with a Spanish accent, which I know people think is an affectation, but honestly just happens. Isaias, beginning to talk, says “mamama,” “papapa,” “dog,” “hi,” “adios,” and “muh" for either more or más—we’re not sure which one he’s trying for, but his meaning is clear.
The magic has worn off, a little. For all that I’ve acculturated, sometimes I still feel strange and outside of things—now in an annoyed, shouldn’t-I-be-on-the-inside-by-now kind of way, no longer in the oooh-how-exotic way of those first years. Sometimes Ibis and I argue about such ridiculous things, I’m embarrassed to even give an example.
But then: we’re just sitting at the gas station eating commercial ice cream bars and showing Isaias the trucks. We could be anywhere; it’s such a mundane moment, such a generic location. Later we’ll go home, past fields of corn and beans and alfalfa, Zapotec ruins, casitas de lamina and casitas de adobe, and we’ll water our little trees, collect the eggs, play soccer with the neighbor kids. We’re at the gas station, but we’re here, together, in Mexico.
There’s no one I’d rather be with. There’s no place I’d rather be.