posted Dec 18, 2006
Later they would divorce and there would be much bitterness and friends wound up choosing sides (his fault, her fault, etc.) and the question of who was deserving of the elaborate home entertainment system would never be resolved in a satisfactory manner, but when they left for Mexico they were still very much in love and generally hopeful about the future. And like just about everyone else, they were not able to foresee, let alone imagine, the changes looming invisibly, inevitably ahead. One day life was one way, the next it was another. You wake up in a different bed in a different city with a different person beside you. How did I get here? Am I the same person I was when I was with person A and not person B (or C, or D), who's mumbling in his/her sleep as if trying to verbalize something important, a warning of some kind perhaps? And before too long it's hard to conjure the existence that preceded the current one. Photographs help but only a little, mainly for remembering dates and trips and hairstyles; they are purely for documentation purposes; they tell you nothing more than I was there and now I am here.
The flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City was long and draining, a dreaded red eye, which made them pledge (mutually, right after the captain finished his bilingual announcements about the approximate arrival time) to forever avoid late-night air travel, no matter the savings involved. Most of the other passengers were Mexicans. More specifically: Mexican men. Many had large cardboard boxes that they lugged on the plane and expertly squeezed into the overhead bins, and many wore straw cowboy hats and duct-taped cowboy boots. He complained about the legroom. She complained about a migraine that had successfully deployed while purchasing Gas-X and a copy of Elle at the airport gift shop. Around 2:30 in the morning they were fed enchiladas puddled in red sauce and then tried to sleep. They went through customs in Guadalajara, getting off the plane and then getting back on, an Olympian and seemingly unnecessary procedure that left them even more depleted and crabby. Once in Mexico City they hailed a taxi, a kamikaze green-and-yellow VW bug with the passenger seat removed, an area where they were instructed to put their luggage (and, after doing so and simultaneously noting the lack of seatbelts with a look of coded American disapproval, how could they not picture themselves—him, that is, since she was sitting behind the driver who would presumably act as a buffer—flying through the windshield and ending this vacation before it even began). The car sharked its way in and out of the taxi-heavy traffic—and along the way they got a small but that's-enough-for-me-thanks glimpse of the metropolis' infamous sprawl and spewing pollution and brown-clotted sky—eventually delivering them to one of the city's many bus stations where they bought two tickets for Oaxaca, six or so hours to the south. The tickets were cheap even though the bus was considered first class. Which meant, they soon discovered, that it had air conditioning and multiple TVs mounted from the ceiling, all down the aisle. During the course of the trip, three Steven Seagal movies were played back to back. You could see his hairline receding further and further with each film. At one point she woke up amid the explosions and poor marksmanship of the vaguely Middle Eastern terrorists and said, "Isn't it over yet?" And he said: "It's a different one, go back to sleep." And then he watched her sleep, his wife, his beautiful sleeping wife, and stared out at a landscape that struck him as barren, ugly, hard. Mexico was her idea.
By the time they arrived at their hotel in Oaxaca (it was only recently that he learned it was pronounced Wa-Ha-ka and not O-x-ah-ka) he had been up for well over twenty-four hours and she had slept only intermittently on the bus ride/Seagal film festival. They collapsed on the bed like a couple of defeated triathletes. The room overlooked a courtyard from which they could hear the delicate tinkling of a water fountain. They were too tired to make love but they did so anyway. Quicker than usual but extremely satisfying nonetheless. The brevity—what? Compacting the pleasure maybe, making each groan and give more potent, more vital. They slept for fourteen hours straight.
The next day they didn't get started until late morning, still jet-lagged and mildly disoriented and consulting their mini library of travel books. They showered, considered making love again (but didn't), applied their SPF 50 sunscreen, packed up the backpack, and set off to explore the town. Today would be an orientation/recovery day. Tomorrow there would be a trip to some nearby ruins and an indigenous village. The day after that renting ATVs. Then another marathon bus ride to the coast, to Puerto Angel, where they'd spend a week in deep relaxation mode before flying back to Mexico City and then home.
The Zócalo—lined with restaurants and cafés and trinket shops as well as people asking the Tecate-sipping tourists for money—was only a few blocks from the hotel. They passed the woman twice. She was sitting on the sidewalk, barefoot, a package of some kind in her lap, sporadically talking to herself and/or the package. She wore what seemed to be layers of brightly colored skirts and a black Florida Marlins T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Young, but probably not as young as you'd initially think. Rocking like a little girl who's lost and about to cry. Just baking away in the sun, oblivious to the heat. It was on the third time that she stood up and ghost-shuffled up to them and tried to hand over the package, Spanish slowly hissing out of her mouth, too late for them to escape.
"I don't understand. What? No," she said. "I don't want it. No gracias. No gracias por favor. Whatever it is, I'm sorry, no. What's she saying?"
They walked faster, but the woman followed.
"You don't want to know," he said, able to translate most of the woman's ramblings, having minored in Spanish to complement his internationally focused business degree.
"What's she saying? Tell me."
"She's saying it's a baby."
"What's a baby?"
"The package, what she's holding and trying to give us. And she's saying she wants to sell it to us, the baby. It's for sale. She's saying—I think it's what she's saying—is that we, we'll give it a better life. The United States is a very beautiful place. She's saying like if we don't buy it she's going to just leave it out on the... Uh, I'm having a little trouble following the rest."
"Muerte," the woman proclaimed, continuing to shadow, bowing her head repeatedly, extending the package toward them like it was a sacrificial gift to the gods. People were looking now: other tourists, the locals, the street vendors. It was becoming a scene.
"What's that? Muh-where-tay? I think I know what that means. What's she saying now?"
"Nothing," he said. "Let's just kept moving. There. That store. Let's go inside. She won't come in."
"But what's she saying?"
"You don't want to know."
"I do want to know."
"You're not going to like it."
He realized then that he could tell her the truth or lie. Somehow her insistence helped him choose the former.
"Okay," he began. "She's saying something like—I don't know—like the baby will die if we don't buy it."
"She said what?"
"Sweetie, never mind. It's just a ploy. She probably says the same thing to every American who walks by. And it's probably not even a real baby in there."
But just as he spoke that last sentence, as if the woman understood the meaning of his privileged norteamericano words (and perhaps she did), she jumped out in front of them so they had to stop. The woman then tore away part of the package's wrapping and underneath they could clearly see it: a small, small baby, very real and very red, and puffy, crowned with a dark thatch of thin hair, a language-less gurgle of new, uncertain life, fingers futilely probing, eyes still pinched shut and not yet ready to view the world. They maneuvered around the woman, started walking again.
"Just don't look back," he said.
"I'm not, I won't," she said. But she did.
Finally, suddenly, the woman gave up. She circled back to her spot on the sidewalk, covered up the baby, resumed her rocking, and just like that it was over. The sun was bursting at full capacity now, situated directly over the Zócalo and filling the sky with a fierce whiteness. They were thirsty. And hungry. After scrutinizing several menus they settled on a restaurant that was upstairs, called Casa Amigo. She was practically shaking. She couldn't stop thinking about it: the woman, the baby, the Spanish words ringing in her head. He was already starting to forget the incident, one of those weird random things that sort of freak you out at the time but quickly fade away. She wanted to call the police, report it to the proper authorities. He wanted a margarita like you wouldn't believe.
The woman was there in the same spot the next day as well. Without the package. The package was gone. She smiled (an evil smile, a witch's smile) as they walked past and pretended not to notice her (but did).
The ruins were ruins, the indigenous village a tourist trap. The ATVs couldn't get over twenty-five and kept breaking down. The hotel in Puerto Angel was nice but not as nice as the web site made it seem. There were mild sunburns but thankfully no major stomach flare-ups, despite a close call with some ceviche. (They made sure to avoid ice and salads—that's where most people slip up, paying for it dearly.) They took naps, lounged on the beach, saying little to each other. The trip had been tainted, haunted. At least for her. She flashed forward and saw them looking at their photo album with a group of friends and only being able to think of the woman and the package and how he would shush her if she started to talk about it, which she probably wouldn't anyway because it's so damn depressing and why spoil the evening but still. The baby was probably no more than a few days old. It looked so new, so raw, so utterly fragile and in need of bodily warmth, the simple truth of skin touching skin, a mother's heart beating nearby. She dreamed of the woman: her face, her murky eyes, her mouth jammed full of unruly teeth. That smile. Sometimes in the dreams the baby was her baby. And she turned away from it. She continued walking with her husband. Then, too, she dreamed of going back to the Zócalo and rescuing the child, tracking it down, bringing it back to their townhouse in Santa Monica, raising it as their own and giving it a life it never would have had, an act of redemption that changes everything. Whenever she returned to the subject (pretty much every few hours) he huffed and puffed. He didn't want to hear about it anymore. It was becoming something more than what it was: an aberration, a travel anecdote, a sad story that didn't have anything to do with them. "Christ, just let it go," he said. And she said: "I can't, I just can't." And he said, finally, on the last night of the trip, after one Corona too many: "I don't fucking get it with you sometimes."
When they got home the red light on their answering machine was blinking and beeping furiously, accusatorily, sixteen messages waiting, but they couldn't bring themselves to listen to them until the next day. It was Sunday. Fortunately they'd had the foresight to take that Monday off as well. They went food shopping, did laundry, returned calls. They made dinner reservations for their anniversary the following month. Three years. The marriage itself would last almost another two. One of the lawyers made the predictable comment about how much easier these things are when there are no children involved.
No, of course, they did not get divorced because a woman had tried to sell them a baby in Oaxaca. It was much, much more complicated than that. There were larger issues, severings that had been there but further developed and intensified over the subsequent months and years. For instance, their clashing and ultimately incompatible views of the universe: he a cynic, she only pretending to be a cynic; he a believer in free will and the power of the individual, she sensing that maybe forces beyond our control shape our lives in ways we can't fully fathom; he questioning the whole idea of parenthood, she finding herself lingering way too long at Baby Gap. Or the more mundane: he a fan of classic rock, she a devotee of Madonna and Brit pop; he a Mac person, she a PC person. Or the more erotic: he unwilling to do certain things sexually, she very willing to do certain things sexually. If each marriage is a mystery to the outside world, then perhaps there's a little bit of that with the participants too.
But what was it, then, about the incident in the Zócalo? Had the event itself caused the fissure between them? Did it merely symbolize something else, shining a light on more substantial concerns? Had its narrative revealed traits and flaws that had previously been hidden or at least somewhat masked (his insularity and lack of compassion, her obsessing over seemingly unimportant matters, big picture-wise)? Did it somehow amplify discord and dissatisfaction that was already there, gestating, that had been steadily insinuating itself into their lives but they were only just now noticing? Or was it merely a random occurrence that signified nothing whatsoever? Both had their suspicions, which never amounted to more than that—speculations, late-night ruminations, Chardonnay-fueled hypotheses that lost their relevance by morning. Yet no matter the exact meaning of the event, it did, however, signal a shift. It was a beginning, a turning.
Now when friends or associates or prospective lovers ask her why the marriage didn't work out (it comes up sooner or later), she says because a woman tried to sell her her baby in Mexico. Then she laughs, enjoying her own personal little joke that no one else could possibly get (she thinks it's funny, witty, enigmatic), and goes on to somberly recite some of the real reasons, that is if the listener hasn't been too put off by her esoteric opening line. And when friends or associates or prospective lovers ask him why the marriage didn't work out (it comes up sooner or later as well), he plays it safe and says it was that old familiar story: two people who loved each other but just not enough.
© 2006 Andrew Roe