My landlord has been renovating the old economy hotel he owns, a dark two-story building near where the old marketplace used to be. Indians selling produce and handcrafts always liked to stay there, and commercial travelers on tight budgets, till the government got worried about traffic congestion and moved the market to a covered hall outside of town. There were few windows in the hotel and those were located high and small at the tops of the cells. Many looked out on other walls and airshafts. The interior was painted a dark sort of turquoise-green, like an aquarium or the bottom of a swimming pool seen through tinted glass. Cool and dark as a cave, admitting only minimal light, this was the sort of room Mexicans liked and that North Americans wouldn’t go near. So Don Carlos has been knocking out walls, opening up space for new windows to let in the relentless sun, letting the glare reflect off the whitewash and fresh paint.
We sat in the patio drinking Cokes in the midst of rubble while workmen pounded the walls. Carpenters cut lumber with handsaws and the sawdust filled the air with sweet pungency.
“You see,” said Don Carlos. “I know what North Americans like.”
“Everyone knows you do,” I said politely. Everyone knew that my landlord had been a poor, illiterate, but good-looking young man in a godforsaken town in the valley when he managed to get an American anthropologist pregnant. Poor thing, everyone said. Of course she was lonely, there all alone. These are the things that happen. Of course, it was also a disgrace. The only way the American anthropologist was able to stay in the town long enough to finish her fieldwork was to marry her lover. She taught him to read and write and keep accounts, took him to the city and got him started in business before disappearing back to the United States with their child. People said no one had ever heard from her again, though others claimed she continued to advise Don Carlos on his finances—the only explanation for his success.
Don Carlos must have been 50 when I met him, but his hair was still black. While he knows all the social graces and these days moves among the finest people, he occasionally—as he did the day I went looking for him—likes to show his strength and recall his roots by removing bottlecaps with his teeth. I like him. Aside from the initial American capital, he’s a self-made man, also intelligent and charming. The anthropologist had not made a bad choice. Don Carlos is the only businessman I’ve ever respected. He isn’t greedy for money; he loves his work. He loves to watch transformations: in his small factories, cloth turns into clothing, dough into tortillas, glass and plastic paste into rosary beads. And while his hotel may indeed make more money catering to Americans, I think Don Carlos began the renovations just because he craves change.
“Don Carlos,” I said at last, “when I got home last night, there was a strange woman in the house. She was cooking dinner on the stove and. . . .”
“Yes, you mean Rosa. You’re going to like her,” he said. “I felt so sorry for you living there all alone.”
“But you see, I want to live alone,” I said, hoping he would simply respect my wish, though I know the desire is one few Mexicans can understand. My Spanish is more or less fluent, but if there is a word for privacy, I cannot tell you.
“It is a very big expensive house for one person,” said Don Carlos.
The little adobe house in question is just a single room with a high ceiling and exposed rafters—a converted storage shed stuck in a neighborhood of villas and mansions. An inconvenient neighborhood with no public transportation— not what I would ordinarily choose. But life in Mexico can be hard on a single woman. You have to watch your step. I’d seen the advantage to this exclusive enclave: my friends would not be comfortable visiting me there, and so my private life would not be open to everyone’s eyes. There might be some hard feelings at my choice, and I’d feel guilty taking advantage of Mexico’s wrecked economy, but with any luck, I would be able to live as an independent adult woman, maintain my good standing, and still get away with the occasional love affair.
“I thought you would be friends,” said Don Carlos. When I didn’t answer, he sighed. “Ay, Rosa, what will become of you? . . . I will find her another place,” he promised.
I stifled the American impulse to ask When?
* * *
That evening, Rosa had visitors, three men who came bearing a bedstead for the mattress she’d already laid on the floor; a couch upholstered in torn orange fabric, springs protruding and stuffing coming out; suitcases tied with rope. With them were two giggling young women waving around bottles of brandy, Coca-Cola, and rum.
The night before, Rosa had confessed—with a mixture of hesitant caution and bravado—that she’d come to town following the man she loved. She’d stood there at the stove, potbelly bulging out of her shiny dress, not at all self-conscious about her excess pounds. Maybe even proud, I thought, like someone who’d gone hungry in the past.
The lovers embraced, clinging together, bodies rubbing and grinding in the sort of display that has become common in the parks and streets, though girls of good family are still kept inside at night, to stand waiting for admirers in their high barred windows, looking like caged animals or holy statues in the side altars at church. The other men fondled their dates, too. One of the women, a girl, really, accepted these caresses in the old-fashioned way, standing still and—as if entirely unaware of the man and what he was doing—staring straight ahead, passive and profoundly untouched.
During a break in the kissing, we introduced ourselves and shook hands all around. Then one of the men—Rogelio— unplugged my typewriter to use the socket for his cassette-player, loaded with Michael Jackson.
I withdrew to my bed at the far end of the room, thinking I’d write letters or read, but gave up when someone turned off the lights. The invaders danced, tossed down drinks. It was like a high school party when someone’s parents aren’t home, right down to the makeout sessions on the torn-up couch.
“Don’t you dance?” Rogelio pulled me to my feet and led me to the others with slightly too eager hands. I went along, telling myself to be a good sport. Rosa would move out soon. And after all, hadn’t I chosen this out-of-the-way neighborhood for just this reason: so that I could, if I chose, entertain men and drink a little too much without shocking my conservative friends?
Rogelio only knew how to slowdance, grinding up against the woman in his arms, and seemed reluctant to take such liberties immediately with me. I did not encourage him. We shuffled awkwardly, only our fingers brushing from time to time, while the two other couples clutched each other with occasional cries and groans.
When the tape at last clicked off, Rogelio went to flip it over and Rosa’s boyfriend handed me a plastic cup.
“We live together,” said Rosa, “and so we must drink together.”
“Toast to your country,” urged her boyfriend. “But then we’ll toast to Mexico!”
“I’ll toast to Mexico with pleasure,” I said.
These words seemed to end whatever restraint they might have felt. I was maneuvered towards the couch and everyone sat around, leaning towards me, avid and close. “Just tell me when you are going to _____” and each named his or her hometown. “I’ll have my family prepare a room for you. Whenever you want to go, however long you want to stay. Whatever you want you can have!” Someone passed around tortillas and canned sardines.
“Isn’t it true,” asked the girl, “that we Mexicans treat the gringos very well? So tell me, why is it that you treat us so badly when we go there?”
The third man, whose name I could not remember, refilled my glass. “If you don’t drink up, it’s desprecio,” he warned.
Desprecio: scorn. I knew not to give any hint of superiority or contempt. The first time I ate dinner in a Mexican home, many years ago, I sat in a dark, low-ceilinged mud hut and was served a bottle of Coca-Cola, a large bowl of black beans, a supply of tortillas that replenished itself as I ate. “Won’t anyone eat with me?” I asked, but no. The family stood around, solicitous, refilling my plate, watching. And anxious to show my appreciation, afraid to give offense, I ate everything before me, gorged myself, finding out only later that my hosts had been unwilling to serve themselves until the guest was done; I had eaten the entire family’s meal.
Now six pairs of eyes were on me. I gulped the brandy, afraid they would read disdain in more measured sips.
“A Mexican will give you everything,” said Rosa. “But if you hurt our pride—beware!”
“And the Rockefellers?” asked someone.
“What about the Rockefellers?”
“Ah ha!” several voices agreed.
More drinking. I longed to escape again to my corner, but two people had already done so, making love on my bed. Eventually, I pretended to pass out on the couch—a pretense not very far from the truth—and fell asleep.
Suddenly I was shaking, remembering another night when I’d awakened to find my body vibrating, everything around me tapping and humming, shaken by an unseen hand. People were shouting Está temblando! which I took to mean she’s trembling. I thought my manifestation of kinetic energy had been powerful enough to awaken and awe everyone sleeping around me. (I’d read Carlos Castaneda, after all, and took it for granted that Mexico would give me metaphysical powers more precious than America’s rational force.) Then I realized that no one was concerned with me but rather with the earth. I woke up fully and understood what was happening at the same moment as the quake passed and the earth stood still.
Now the couch was creaking, an unfriendly mass of lumps and springs; a presence—some living energy—balanced itself on the broken arm, some entity whose pressure and weight made the wobbly legs tap against the floor. Years ago, a little girl in the orphanage told me about her virgencitas, tiny little Virgin Marys, about two inches high, who often appeared at night at the foot of her bed. They said nothing. They were just there, she thought, to let her know that she would be OK.
“Are you awake?” asked Rosa. She stopped agitating the furniture and insinuated herself beside me, smelling of liquor and perfume. “Look, now it’s just the two of us,” she said. “Two friends, speaking frankly. So tell me the truth.”
But I didn’t want to be friends with her. I wanted her to move out. And while I could criticize America all right, I was intolerant of Rosa, and assumed nothing I could say would satisfy.
“I’ve studied English,” she said. “My pronunciation isn’t so good, but I read it as easily as if it were Japanese. I had a chance to travel, oh, a few years ago, but in Texas they treated us so badly. And we give you everything, everything!” She was so aggrieved, I could almost forget she was the intruder in my home. “But then in Hollywood,” she said, “I met some movie stars and went to all the parties. You probably don’t believe me. Oh, the swimming pools! Oh, the champagne! I know all the movie stars,” she insisted. “All of them. Like them, I live for the moment.” She laughed, then gripped my arm. “You look down on us,” she said. “You probably think the party we had here tonight was more boring than what you’re used to there. But tell me. . . .” She had me propped up into a half-sitting position, my shoulders pinned back against the couch. “Tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you!”
“Tranquility,” I whispered. “Silence. Solitude.”
* * *
During my first visit to this small Mexican city, years ago, I spent two months on el Callejón de La Soledad— which I translated, wrongly, as Solitude Alley—attracted by the name and by the poverty. The small muddy quarter of ramshackle shanties was one of the few parts of downtown still without electricity or running water. Most of the women on the Alley worked as laundresses. Every morning, they wandered the town seeking dirty sheets door-to-door while the children spent the day carrying buckets from a distant public fountain.
The Alley ran behind the church of Our Lady of Solitude, which accounted for (and took away most of the promise of) the name. As for the poverty, it was every bit as grinding as I could have hoped, wearing away everything about my life that I took for granted, destroying certain parts of my ego— the outward trappings that Americans consider self-respect— without ever putting me in immediate danger. You couldn’t thrive on Solitude Alley, but you could last a long time.
For 5¢ a night, I slept on a mat surrounded by ten or 20 other people, and changed lodgings almost daily—not to improve my conditions, but because I was told to share the wealth. After a few weeks, my body seemed permanently covered with a layer of valley dust. My clothes were wrinkled and yellowed and probably reeked. (I never figured out how the women managed to get the paid laundry so clean.) For a change, I was not instantly recognizable as a foreigner, but even that was not to last: I was discovered by the Catholic Action ladies who trooped along the muddy crooked footpaths seeking to do good. They never once told me—as my friends and parents back home tried to do—that my wallow in poverty was self-indulgent. They simply put me to work: teaching people to read, distributing birth control information and the condoms which these sheltered ladies thought a wonderful new invention, having never heard the opinion of the Pope. They seduced me, gradually, back to the middle class, deloused me in time to have lemonade with the Archbishop in an old convent turned to a museum. Water played in a stone fountain, and I stood there, tall, pale and thin, surrounded by my new friends—corseted ladies who giggled like schoolgirls and dressed in black.
You are here to study? people asked me.
Not to study, I would answer but to learn— a distinction I soon stopped making. Besides being pretentious, it proved too subtle to grasp.
I left Solitude Alley to live with my new adopted godmother, a woman whose house was full of abandoned children and Alley kids she’d decided to sponsor and put through school. I became, briefly, her gringa foster child. I had special privileges, though. Not Catholic, I was excused from daily mass; an American, I was allowed to talk to boys, free to leave the house at will, unchaperoned.
Afternoons I wandered while poor people collapsed and slept and my devout middle-class friends rocked in front of their TV’s, watching soaps, screaming with delight each time a woman was unfaithful to her man. I loved the little provincial city: a few impressive government edifices and the cathedral surrounded by modest shops. Low adobe buildings painted in pastels ran along clean and straight with continuous walls, as cheerful and monotonous as the corridors of a nursery school. On every corner, men sold popcorn—”little doves”—and ices; women offered jícama slices sprinkled with chile and lime, and mangoes peeled and mounted on sticks. The smells were pineapples, roses, tortillas frying in oil, the sweat of men and burros, a whiff of garbage and spoiled fruit, charcoal fires from the outskirts of town. There were dozens of churches, many with esplanades and open plazas. I would walk across in the hot white glare. The Mexican sun would burn out the last traces of America, that moral swamp. I’d stand not so much transfixed—which would mean pinned down—but light, and full of light, reprieved.
When I went home in the end, I brought back with me the idea of virtue like an invisible infection, a resistant strain of Third World parasite.
* * *
In the morning, I woke on the couch. Rosa lay on her own bed, asleep in her boyfriend’s arms. Rogelio and his girl were on my bed. The other couple was gone.
I dressed and left, walked a mile to the bus stop. I had to see Don Carlos right away.
Overnight, political graffiti (all in the same hand) had appeared on walls from one end of town to the other—those great expanses of adobe are irresistible as chalkboards—and the streets were full of soldiers. Some stood guard, others painted over the revolutionary messages, others flirted with me as I got off the bus and headed for my landlord’s hotel.
Don Carlos was eating breakfast. He stood, obviously distressed, and asked me to join him. I’m not an important person, just a hapless tenant. It was hard to see how my presence, even my displeasure, could have him so upset.
“Señorita,” he said, “I have heard certain gossip. . . . The situation has presented extraordinary difficulties. . . .”
I tried to speak, but he cut me off.
“Señorita, please. . . . Let me say from the outset that what has happened was not my intention in any way. Rosa is a girl from my own village and so I wanted to give her a helping hand. You can’t imagine how hard it is for people these days, with the peso worth nothing and costs so high.” He paused, to let me think about my U.S. dollars, I assumed. “Your Solitude Alley was luxury,” he said. “Today, people are living in the garbage dump. Whole families, hundreds of them. . . .”
I had heard this before. “Where is this dump, Don Carlos? I’ve never seen it.”
He stared at me solemnly. Some sights are not for North American eyes. “Believe me,” he said, “when I gave the keys to Rosa, I didn’t know about her local connections. But now I understand she’s a wild one, she indulges herself with certain corrupt judiciales. . .. Do you see my problem?” asked Don Carlos.
“Our problem. Really my problem,” I corrected him.
“The neighbors don’t like it either, and yet they understand. Rosa has friends. I don’t dare ask her to leave.”
“But I can’t live with her. So I’ll move,” I said, though it was not what I wanted to do at all.
“Señorita, it’s not that simple. I feel so very bad about this. But you must not move.”
“Because you are a North American.” Don Carlos never uses the word gringo. “There’s been talk about you. You make friends with people, well, not the people that tourists meet. And so some say you are a radical agitator. Other people say CIA. If you leave the house because of the judiciales, who knows what might happen. Everyone will believe you have something to hide.”
“But that’s ridiculous. I’m not. . . .”
“I believe you, señorita. I understand that you people have many reasons for leaving your country and coming here. But other people do not understand. Your situation is very delicate.”
“I don’t believe this!”
“You must, señorita,” he said. “And you must stay in the house with Rosa, at least for awhile. For your own safety, for your own good.”
* * *
The street in front of the cathedral is closed to traffic; workmen are spreading wet cement, then pressing down molds to create false cobblestones, painstakingly, one small grid at a time. Eventually, the city will look like the colonial gem the tourists expect. I sat on a park bench, watching the progress of the work, feeling sorry for myself and ashamed: an imperialist in search of primitive idealism, neocolonialist of the soul. I expected better of Mexico.
“Should I avoid my friends?” I’d asked Don Carlos. “Will I bring suspicion on them, too?”
“No,” he said. “You must act as if nothing has changed.”
But nothing was the same. I shouldn’t be here, I thought. It was impossible to be an unobtrusive foreigner; I would never blend in.
“A person cannot escape her culture,” my godmother told me once. “You cannot. Neither can I.” She told me Mexican women were the most self-abnegating in the world. “It’s not good that way,” she said, “but can I change my character just like that?” Of course not, she said, but she still had a choice: “to give myself and suffer, or give myself and be happy, giving something to the world.”
We lived in a rambling house with patios and porches, gardens with parrots and flowers and herbs. In the courtyard, big girls washed the little girls’ hair and rubbed their braids with green lemons and limes. The girls slept two and three to a bed in the rooms and back-patio shacks. A few little boys camped on the covered porches outside our doors. The children went to school in shifts and made ambitious plans: to be a doctor, a lawyer, to build a decent house for my parents, pay for my sister’s operation, help my baby brother go to school. My godmother had one full-time plus some part-time jobs’ to support everyone. I gave English lessons and baked fancy cakes. With the kids’ help, she catered parties, and embroidered tablecloths, taught knitting and crocheting on the side.
“I’m really very selfish,” she said. “I just hate to be alone.”
When I returned to Mexico, I found her staying at the home of a cousin, with the usual entourage of girls—but all unfamiliar faces, no one that I knew.
“Where’s Lilia?” I asked.
“Gone,” my godmother said.
“I don’t know. She left without saying goodby.”
Rufi? Gone. Lupe? Gone. Balbina?
“She’s married and lives in San Ildefonso, a village not far from here. I haven’t seen her, though, or heard from her a long, long time.” (I went to see Balbina: three buses out into the countryside, leaving behind the city trees in favor of cactus—the tall green poles the people use for fences, the flat bearded jade paddles, nopal. The Balbina I remembered had looked like an American cheerleader, energetic, with a quick and beautiful smile. I found her barefoot in a hut with a baby wrapped up in a shawl. She’s gone backwards, I thought. But—progress!—there was a cement floor, the baby was clean, there was a big TV. I congratulated her on her marriage and home. She shrugged. “I have nothing to complain about,” she said.)
“And the ones with me now,” said my godmother, “they take money from me for school books, and then they spend it on marijuana and fancy underwear.”
“Why do people learn only the worst things from us?” I asked and then regretted the condescension. As though Mexicans needed a gringo model and could not discover that mix of selfishness and self-destruction on their own.
“I’m so sorry,” I told my godmother.
“For what? I wanted to give those children a chance in life. They took it.”
(The cousin took me aside. “She has nothing!” she told me indignantly. “Not even a roof over her head. All these years helping, helping others. . . . Do they remember her? Are they grateful?” She shook her bobbed head. “She’s a secular nun, but she should have been a real one.”
“At least she would have a home in the Church,” I agreed.
“No, that’s not what I mean. As a nun, she would be inspiring. People would say, How beautiful! But giving up her life like this, people just think she is a fool. . . . And where is she going to go now?” she asked rhetorically. “She could stay here with me forever, but not the lot of them. When my husband comes home from California, they’ve got to go.”)
In the park kiosk, a military band struck up a march. I rose, the idea coming to me with the first notes. No wonder I was having such a rough time. I’d been thinking only of myself. Don Carlos, I thought, redeem yourself!
He spends his mornings visiting the factories. I waited at the hotel till he returned for lunch, then presented the problem: “My godmother and the girls need a place to stay.”
He didn’t hesitate. He admired her tremendously, he said, and yes, if she didn’t mind the dust and noise—it really wasn’t so bad, he lived in the midst of it himself—until the grand reopening, she and the Eleven Thousand Virgins were welcome to stay at the hotel, free of charge.
I ran through the streets, a crazy gringa, on fire to tell my godmother the good news.
“They’re gone,” her cousin told me. “My husband returned and said they had to go.”
“But where are they?”
“With La Presidenta.”
“You mean she’s still alive?”
A grand old lady of almost 100 years, La Presidenta claimed she’d once been courted by a gentleman who would surely have become President of the Republic had his life not ended prematurely under circumstances too painful (perhaps too sordid) to recall. Even years ago, when I first met her, she was a shut-in, a skeletal creature draped in black lace, a life-size version of the dolls people buy in the marketplace for the Day of the Dead. Once a week, the Catholic Action ladies took a bunch of children from Solitude Alley to the public baths, to mass, and then on to pay a call on La Presidenta. She would hug and kiss her visitors and they would sit quietly on straightbacked chairs while La Presidenta rambled on about old age, sickness, and loneliness, and sometimes about her glorious youth. How remarkable those children were, sitting polite and attentive, watching the old woman with their big eyes!
A teen-ager answered when I knocked at the gate. She squealed and threw her arms around me. “Who am I?” she demanded. “Do you remember?”
On one of the rare occasions when La Presidenta had passed around candies, Elpidia had taken a bit of her chocolate cream and murmured, “It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted!” Then she carried the rest of it home, melting in her hand, to give her sister. I could hardly imagine it: a child who would take only one bite of the most delicious thing in the world. My godmother was impressed too, and decided to sponsor both girls. “So you’re all here!”
“No,” said Elpidia. “Just me. It wasn’t good for the rest of them. She accused everyone of stealing. She called us nasty little Indians.”
“Oh!” I remembered one evening when a little girl, meeting La Presidenta for the first time, ventured to ask, Were you married to Benito Juádrez? Juárez was on everyone’s mind as the country had just celebrated the centennial of his death, which put him well before even La Presidenta’s time. What a thought! she’d cried. No, never! As though I’d love a dirty Indian like that!
“She even made up a song,” said Elpidia, “all about little Indians, stealing and smelling bad. Once we knew the words, she didn’t have to sing it. She’d just hum it all day.”
The rays of the sun stabbed my tired head. Elpidia linked my arm in hers and led me to the horrible woman’s house. “She’s a very sick delicate old lady,” she said. “Poor thing. She gets no pleasure in life. She doesn’t know what she’s saying most of the time. I’ve lived here, taking care of her, almost two years.”
I said, “You still have a tender heart.”
“I had to do something, you know. I kept failing at school.”
“And your sister,” I asked. “How is she?”
We sat on the old sofa in the salon and I remembered Elpidia, a tiny child, sitting in the corner on a straightbacked chair, her feet dangling. Her braids would have touched the ground if she’d let them fall. She wore them tied up, doubled over, they were so long.
Thump! thump! thump! Plaster flakes drifted from the ceiling like the snow in Gringolandia.
Elpidia jumped to her feet. “That’s the song. Now she just beats out the rhythm with her cane when she wants me.”
I was almost too exhausted to feel outrage. Alone, I yawned and leaned back against the cushions. A sharp corner jabbed my back: an open book. Not just any book. Capital by Carlos Marx. The reader—Elpidia?— was in the midst of the chapter on “The Working Day,” and the margins were full of notes in a childish, primary-school hand: Mexican statistics about rural-urban migration, mortality rates, hiring and layoffs in the construction trades. In quotation marks, the words “Social Darwinism,” underlined, and followed by a question mark. This from the girl—if it was indeed Elpidia—who could not get past fifth grade. I replaced the book and closed my eyes.
Elpidia returned chuckling. “Oh, when she goes to the toilet—pain!”
I wanted to ask her about Carlos Marx, but what if she’d heard those rumors about me—CIA? Instead I asked, “So where is our godmother now?”
“Oh, then she’s gone to stay with Balbina?”
“Balbina, no. It’s a bad home. Her husband drinks and beats her.”
“Poor Balbina. I went to see her, and I didn’t know, but something felt wrong.”
“Something was always wrong with Balbina,” said Elpidia, without sympathy. “Oh, she always has plenty of smiles for Catholic ladies and gringas, but we knew her better. We lived with her. We. . . .”
I didn’t want to hear more. I thought of the cheerful Balbina I remembered and the young mother she’d grown into, with a baby wrapped up in a shawl. I’d stood in her little house and said how sad it was, the way everyone had scattered, that no one went back to visit our godmother. And she just shrugged. She said, Everyone makes his own path, and that was that. I’d had so many illusions.
“You know,” I told Elpidia, “when I was younger, everyone in America was very idealistic for awhile, and then it ended. When I first came here and found everyone working together, I didn’t realize you were just in a Utopian phase.” I paused, thinking to define Utopian, but she seemed to know. “I didn’t think it would end. All those virtues. I thought they were Mexican. And eternal.”
Elpidia wasn’t moved. “It’s a new era,” she, said briskly, but then softened. “Our godmother was magnificent,” she said. “She was wonderful. In many ways, I owe her my life. But look how conservative she is. She won’t criticize the government—ever—and she’s so religious and strict. She was the greatest—for her time and place. Not now.”
Into the dustbin of history, I thought, but said nothing.
“I’m better off here with the old bitch,” said Elpidia. “She can’t climb stairs, you know, so she’s stuck up there. I use the house, I invite the compañeros that I study with.”
“But how do you stand her?”
Elpidia laughed. “She’s terrible, but she knows she can only push me so far. Any further and I’ll kill her.” Her pupils were dilated. My godmother had shocked me once by calling this look their atavistic stare. “So you see my tender heart! . . . well, when you go to San Ildefonso,” she said, “ask for Doña Eugenia. That’s who they went to.” I waited a moment more, hoping she would say, “And give our godmother my love.”
Doña Eugenia was squatting in front of her cooking shack when I found her, roasting coffee beans on a round metal plate over a brazier.
“Smells delicious!” I greeted her.
In return, she cursed, impatient because the shells were taking too long to burn away. “No, they’re not here,” she told me. It was too long a trip for them. How could the girls get to school? She directed me to an address back in town.
I went from a Doña Elda to a Doña Leocadia. My godmother was a saint—they crossed themselves, then blew into their fists—a true saint, they told me, but alas, they weren’t able to help her. How could I blame them? I didn’t even want to share my house with one roommate. And I thought of the foster kids who’d run away without a word, insistent—like me—on freedom. Solitude Alley has been bulldozed, but I went searching through the new shanty towns outside the city limits, skittish each time I saw a man in uniform. I looked for them at a construction site in a new colonia where the sun went down and a soldier whispered Let me go with you!, and in a storeroom behind a corner store with almost empty shelves. Anacleto works there now, a boy who once slept outside my door and now considers himself lucky with a few cents pay and space to unroll his sleeping mat. He sent me to Don Raúl and his model poultry farm, but it was a dead end. They hadn’t been there.
We’d gone to a model farm years ago, the little girls all in pinafores and plastic sandals. We saw two turkeys fighting— strange how those placid birds turn so passionate on the attack—and one little girl rushed into the fight and hobbled the aggressor by grabbing and crossing its wings. The children scrambled into the guava trees in the orchard, gathering ripe fruit in their aprons, except for Elpidia who reached a crotch in the tree and seemed to forget what she was doing there, smiling to herself and looking out at the distant blue mountains and the sky. At the house where we all lived, my godmother stood behind the wash trough on Sunday, shampooing little heads: Do we have lice? No, we don’t have lice. And why don’t we have lice? Because we keep clean and wash our clothes and our hair. And when you grow up, you’ll keep clean and you’ll keep your husband and your children clean. And how many children are you going to have? One or two children. And when you’re older, you’ll learn how. . ..
How could they just vanish?
“It happens,” said Don Carlos. He poured me another copita. We were drinking by candlelight at his kitchen table: a couple of glasses, a bottle, plastic flowers in a vase. (The rosebushes in the courtyard had been trampled, were coated with plaster and dust; I wondered if they would survive.) “You should go home,” he said.
I made a face at him over my glass. “I’m in no hurry to see our friends the judiciales.”
“No. I mean to the United States, Go home, relax, make money.”
Once my godmother had told me to go, too. “Help the poor people in your country,” she said. I didn’t do that either.
“There’s a good life in the North,” said Don Carlos. “Everyone knows.”
“Depends what you mean by good. . . . Let me tell you about the kind of people I work for,” I said. “There was this editor who stopped running my work because she didn’t like my casual way of dress. But then her boss came upon something I’d written and had her secretary call me. She loved it, she was dying to meet me. So I borrowed a suit and a briefcase from a neighbor and went to meet the editor-in-chief. She doesn’t even try to hide her disappointment. Oh, she says, I thought you’d be wearing blue jeans and a black beret.” I could see he didn’t understand. “The last work I did was an article about a terrible childhood disease, a neurological condition that twists little kids up”—into pretzels, I wanted to say—”into . . .like braids. . . . And I found a doctor, Don Carlos, a world expert on this condition who’s been treating children and curing a lot of them too. He works in a hospital in Kansas City, Missouri and I flew out there to interview him, talk to the kids, see him at work.”
“Sentimental junk,” said Don Carlos, surprising me. It wasn’t for him to say, and besides, it had been a comparatively meaningful assignment as these things go.
“Two months later, the editor phones with a problem. She’s confused. Wasn’t Kansas City in Kansas? Why had I written Missouri?”
“There’s a Kansas City on each side of the state line,” said Don Carlos, expert on North Ameriean life.
“Yes, but the editor acted like she’d never heard of such a thing. I’m a very educated woman, she told me, and if I find this confusing, our readers won’t be able to deal with it at all. They decided not to run the story, because the doctor lived in Kansas City.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Don Carlos.
“Believe it,” I said. “My big mistake was saying So if people don’t know Kansas City, Missouri, run the story. They’ll learn something. There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. Then my editor—from that moment on, though, she wasn’t my editor anymore—said / don’t think you understand the function of this magazine.”
“I didn’t know,” said Don Carlos. “I didn’t know North Americans were so ignorant.” He played a moment with his glass, his eyes closed, and I felt sorry for him, afraid his new perspective on America had somehow changed the way he remembered the woman who had loved and left him. He said, “You people are supposed to be so smart.”
“People want to learn,” I said. “I still believe that. I know a girl, a teenager,” I said. “She keeps failing sixth grade. She’s supposed to be slow. But she reads Karl Marx. . . .”
“Yes, the Marxists are taking advantage of the economic situation,” he said. “Distributing books, running study circles. . . .”
“You know what I think?” I asked him. “People embrace communism because Marxists treat them as though they have brains. Marxists give them the chance to use this part of themselves they didn’t even know they had. It’s an awakening, and so it all seems like pure truth—the intellectual sensation is that strong.”
“Ahhh, you are comparing it to sex,” said Don Carlos, the first time that subject had come up between us. “Just as a woman loves the man who reveals her own body to her. . . .”
“Yes,” I said. “If she doesn’t know the feeling is hers. If she thinks she can only feel it because of him. . . . Learning is an instinct,” I insisted. “Don’t people go wrong when their natural instincts are thwarted?”
Don Carlos poured another drink and laughed. “Sex produces a child and learning wisdom, but doing it is where the pleasure lies.”
There was an awkward silence: Don Carlos, perhaps, thinking of his lost gringa and the child she had taken away; me wondering if he would turn out to be it—the discreet adult relationship I’d had in my plans.
“Well, I better go back to Rosa’s,” I said.
He grunted, unhappy that I was leaving or else displeased to hear me refer to the house as hers. Then, “It’s late. I’ll drive you.”
The city is mysterious at night, dark, with no one out. The motion of the car soon made me realize how much I’d had to drink. I was too tired for this. What was I doing here? We took the peripheral highway and then the back way into the rich neighborhood I’d thought to make my home. The party was still going on, only now the music had changed—the cheerful wail of a ranchera.
We parked in front of the gate and Don Garlos put his arms around me in something more intimate than the usual friendly abrazo. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Just drunk,” I said. “And sad.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go in there like this.”
“I’ll be fine. Like this, I might even fit in.”
He seemed reluctant to let me go. “Now, not a word about Carlos Marx to them. . ..”
“No, of course not,” I said. “I’ll just dance the night away in self-defense.”
“We should go back to town. You could stay at the hotel.”
“No,” I said, but relaxed in his arms.
“Well, I’ll walk with you.”
“No, no, you can leave me now. Go on home. I’ll be fine.”
When I first arrived in Mexico many years ago, I stayed briefly in a hostel in another town, and I stayed there longer than I intended because of a stone wall covered with vines and white flowers. Nardos. The fragrance, if it hadn’t been so perfectly balanced, would have been overpoweringly sweet. But it was perfect. A friend of mine says we get our idea of perfection from God, which I do not believe, but the perfume from those flowers did seem to impart some kind of grace.
Nardos. My dictionary said tuberose, but when I returned to the United States, that turned out to be a funeral parlor flower with a rather musky, waxy smell.
One of the things I like best about the house I rent from Don Carlos is that behind the building there’s a ravine, and in the thickety scrub, a broken stone wall over which nardos fall in profusion. The flowers are especially fragrant at night. They drew me—after Don Carlos drove away—to the ravine.
The full moon made everything glow as I plunged my arms among the vines. I touched a blossom and something moved in my hand, backing out of the flower like a bumblebee. For an instant, a little virgencita, no more than 2″ high, hovered before my face, a golden aura lighting her robes. And I knew—or imagined—the night was full of them. They weren’t all Marys, either, not at all. Some wore pinafores and braids, shawls, corsets, even glasses, blue jeans and a black beret. The night was full of them, and the scent of white flowers.
“Where’s my godmother?” I asked.
The air around me trembled and hummed; the virgencitas, little good-for-nothings, were silent, but Rosa’s voice ascended, singing along with the music: mournful, then lusty; hot and high as flames from a house on fire reaching up up up just before the roof comes down.