Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Jesús’s favorite ice cream is pistachio, but sometimes he’ll order the nuez, vanilla swirls with bits of nut. He orders for us, and then we sit and eat and watch the people go by on the street. We watch the pale Americans, the drunk Americans, the loud Americans, the unlovely Americans. Intermixed with them are the mahogany Mixtecs and Zapotecs — boys with buckets full of fish, women carrying hazel-eyed babies, children running and laughing, old men dressed in traditional white shirts and huaraches.
“Gringo watching,” I call it. I’ve been living in Mexico on and off for twenty years, and slowly I’m developing this prejudice, this terrible prejudice, against Americans. “They’re so pale and wan — in such a hurry,” I think, trying to forget I’m one of them. Jesús, who brings me down here every evening, isn’t prejudiced. He watches the young ladies, watches them all. Those from north of the border are as interesting to him as those from his own hometown. He wants them all.
This morning we had our first rain in almost six months. This is a drought area; the hills have withered. I often wonder that the whole region doesn’t come down with some great fever from the sky, a grand conflagration that will burn up the fields, take the city of Puerto Angel, and the tourists, up in one smoky mass.
“What’s it like being here, in Mexico, in a wheelchair?” The lady asking this question is thirty, thirty-five years old. Her chin is sharp, her face pale, eyes hidden behind large dark glasses. I am watching the balloon man across the plaza. He has balloons in all sizes and shapes, floating in a bunch above his head. I favor the monstro, the monster head, a funny face with tiny squiggly balloons sprouting over its top. I wonder how he makes it look so — well — human.
“I have a brother in a wheelchair,” she says. “He’s a quad. That’s why I’m asking.” Throaty voice, no accent. She must be from the West.
A brother who’s a quad. They always say that. Or: “My dad has diabetes, they took off his leg right here” (slicing motion across the thigh). I hear that a lot. “My uncle’s in a wheelchair. Vietnam.” The non-specific description. Or the very specific: “My mom’s a stroke victim and her whole right side is useless — she uses a cane and we have to feed her.” All these cripples. A world full of cripples. And I get to hear about all of them.
Absolute strangers come up to me to tell me about people I don’t know, will never know, can never care about. “I have enough troubles without this,” I think. “They are just trying to reach out, the only way they know how,” I tell myself. “You’re not alone,” they are saying, sure that I feel alone. “I know someone who’s just as badly off as you,” they’re saying. “Don’t you feel better now?” they think.
Maybe I am softening. I no longer pretend I’m a deaf-mute when they start in. I don’t — as I did, the last time I was here — pretend that I speak no English. “Lo siento — no entiendo los gabachos,” I said. Sorry, I don’t understand Americans: There were times, I have to admit, when I just looked at them, and said, “Oh?” or, nodding my head, “Mmm.”
Thirty-five years have probably softened me, made me more willing to hear: people hurting, everywhere people hurting. This lady hurting, with whatever it is that our families feel: angst, maybe; fear, possibly; guilt, certainly. “Anytime anyone talks to you, it is God talking to you, telling you something you need to hear right now,” Stephen Gaskin used to say. Sometimes I wonder if the words are a little garbled, the messenger a little befuddled. What to respond? I know, in 1952 or 1966 or 1974 you couldn’t get a whisper out of me on this “my brother’s a quad” business. Now, it’s different.
“It’s the same,” I tell her now. “No — that’s not exactly right. It’s complicated and it can be frustrating. But there are compensations.” Like my helpers, Jesús and Diego. They’ve been working for me for three winters now. They take me about Puerto Angel, and to the beach to swim. They get me out of the car and down to the water and then back out, rinsed off, in the car, home again.
They buy my food at the public market (inaccessible), help me cook it (I’m learning to cook black beans and rice), even help me eat it. “I have two employees here,” I tell her. “They help me a great deal.” Two employees. What does that mean? Two young people who tell me about their lives, and I tell them about mine. Jesús with his careful walk, his dark polished skin, his serene face, his straight Mayan nose, the high cheekbones, god’s eyes. Diego with the arched back, the great, slow, wise eyes, the rounded features right out of the Yucatán.
“They’re fun to be with,” I add now. They are filled with that strange mixture of Mexican manhood and sentiment that fascinates visitors. Sometimes they get drunk with me. “They might be the best part of my stay here,” I say. “They’re very good workers. They’re with me sixty, seventy hours a week. I pay them $140 a month. That’s more than the minimum wage here.” Diego, who makes me laugh when I’m feeling blue; Jesús, who jollies me out of my bad moods. “¿Qué pasa, gabacho?” What’s going on, they ask me, at those times when I don’t feel like leaving the house. Together, they get me out the door. I don’t protest, not too much. At the ocean’s edge, I can’t be thinking those thoughts anymore, can I? Jesús and Diego know my problems are soluble in water.
“They teach me Spanish,” I tell her. “I’d have to pay Berlitz a fortune for the lessons they give me.” Then I tell her about some of the frustrations. Mexico isn’t set up for wheelchairs. Not many ramps, almost no curb cuts. There are very few hotels that have rooms for the disabled. I had to scout out the five restaurants (of twenty) in Puerto Angel without steep stairs. I have yet to get over my unwillingness to be carried in and out of restaurants, bathrooms, banks.
“It’s a concession to being in a Third World country,” I tell her. “With my two helpers, it doesn’t have to be a big deal.” They like showing off their strength, and they can be very funny about it. “Pinche gringo,” Jesús will say. “Pesa 400 kilos.” That means he thinks I weigh 850 pounds. It is his way of telling me he likes me.
“There’s no special parking, or special placards,” I tell her. “But when I park my car on the beach here, near the water, the police never bother me.” In California, or Florida, or Texas, the police would apologize while giving me a $250 ticket.
“Sometimes I feel like a mountain climber here,” I say. Quite suddenly the sky turns orange-green, then a brilliant green-black. The usual spectacular tropical sunset that happens so quickly, even when you’re expecting it. The sudden end of the searing heat and too-bright sunlight.
“How’d he get to be a quad?” I ask her. The street turns dim and dusty. I can no longer see her face, only the outline of her head. She still has on her dark glasses. She tells me about the drinking, the general helling around when he was twenty. The drugs, the accident.
“They didn’t know whether he was going to live,” she says. She pauses. “I think he’s a much better person for it.”
I look at the balloon man. He’s standing under the one street light of Puerto Angel. The light has yet to come on, so the balloons cast a dark cloud over him. He has so many of them straining on their strings, and he is such a tiny fellow, I half expect to see him take off, float away into the starry sky, rise dispassionately into the stratosphere. Our balloon man which art in heaven.
“A much better person,” I say, nodding. Then, “That’s an awful thing to say.”
“I’m sorry?” She’s not apologizing — she just doesn’t understand.
“I don’t like to hear that,” I say. She turns her head to watch the balloon man. He creates his monsters right there out of rubber and helium. He fills the balloons from the great bruised silver tank at his side, twists them in the shape of animal faces, or strange bodies, turning them this way and that. When he fills the balloons with the helium it makes a raw, screeching sound. She sits down on the curb next to me.
“I don’t understand,” she says, “but maybe I never will.” She tells me she is a nurse in Colorado. Even with her training, it seems the hardest job was learning to deal with her brother’s body. “I’ve done caths — lots of times. And yet, nothing is harder for me,” she says. She stops. “He was the one that used to pick on me all the time, never had any time for me, called me ‘stupid.’ And now there he is, lying flat on his bed. Sometimes I have to give him his catheter in the morning.”
A little girl, not more than five years old, is trying to push two boys, probably her brothers, up the hill in a scratched red wagon with warped wheels. One of the boys, the older one, is yelling, “¡Recio, recio!” (faster, faster!) The other one is just sitting there, at the front of the wagon, without a stitch on, digging the hell out of his ride. The girl can barely get it to move, what with the hill and all; she’s pushing with all her might.
“Maybe he’s better for it,” I repeat. “I don’t think it’s up to us to say that sort of thing.” What is it they say? Only the gods can worship God.
Jesús is behind me now. He pushes back and forth on the wheelchair, slowly, rhythmically. There’s a fiesta in Tonameca. He wants to get over there, to check on a young lady he claims will be his next novia. He wants to get me over there because he knows that by 10, when things are starting to happen, I will be drunk, and will insist on going home. He doesn’t want to miss a thing. I’ve been to the Tonameca fiesta before. The ground is sandy, people will be pushing in on my wheelchair from all sides. We’ll get stuck, people will stare. From two feet away, they’ll stop dead and stare. They always do. They’ve never seen a six-foot gringo in a wheelchair.
I wouldn’t even go if it weren’t for the fact that when I’m there, I’m living. Living, for Christ’s sakes. Going out in the world, seeing different people, a different world. The lady wants to know if her brother in his wheelchair would be happy here. “Sure,” I want to tell her. “It’ll be all right if he doesn’t mind getting stuck, having people gaga staring at him. It’s all right, if you don’t mind being a freak.” I want to tell her that. But that sounds bitter — and it would be a lie. There aren’t many of us around, and we’re the object of curiosity; but it’s a curiosity coming from some of the kindest, most open people in the world. I think of my times here, the despair that occasionally comes from the inaccessible buildings, places I can’t ever dream of getting up to, or down from; the times that my bladder is bursting, and there’s no place to go, and I want to scream, or cry. And Jesús and Diego, with their great wise serious eyes, understanding, somehow, always figuring out what is going on, figuring a way for me to make it.
“It’s a different world down here,” I tell her. “Your brother might like it, or, then again, he might despise it. You can never tell. It depends on him, and how much he likes Mexico, and Mexicans.” I think about what happened this morning. Jesús started into tickling and pinching me, and then ducking away when I tried to grab him. He thought I was turning a bit sour, and he wanted to be sure I got my daily quota of tickles. I wonder if the attendants in the United States — what do they call them? “personal care attendants” — are allowed to tickle their charges. Is that written in an attendant’s job description? A good, thorough tickling when the patient starts to feel bad?
“To me they’re all gods, so I forgive them everything,” I say. I think of Diego, his great round face, that monumental face out of the tombs of Quintana Roo — the lids so heavy, the lips so broad, so compassionate, the eyes so inexpressively expressive.
“What do you mean by that?” she asks, moving her hands vaguely.
I wonder if I can get it across. “To be here, to really enter the country, you have to be willing to leave certain things behind. And not for a week or a month — but for a long time,” I tell her. “They have something special here.”
“Mexicans learn to love so quickly and easily,” I say. “Some of us — if we are open, or lucky — learn to love them in return. We gringos are so much slower, so much more fearful of love. For us it’s like taking hostages. Especially for those of us. . . .” I want to say, “for those of us like your brother and me,” but I don’t finish the sentence.
Over where the sun has died on the horizon, there is a bare smudge of rouge, a burning off, so far off. She’s standing up, brushing her skirt. “It’s so hard for us to learn about it,” I say. I want to tell her more, but she turns, waves goodbye, and is gone. I think of that line from Beckett: “The trouble with her was that she had never really been born.”
An hour later, Jesús and I are smack-dab in the middle of the Tonameca fair. I get stuck in the sand twice, and at least 300 people give me a good going-over, not looking, but staring. Jesús has talked me into eating several tacos de cabeza. Brain tacos. “It’s all right if you don’t mind eating all those thoughts,” I tell my friends later. “It’s supposed to make you smarter.”
“¿Quién fue esa mujer?” Jesús asks me. Who was that woman? He thinks I should make her my novia and marry her. He thinks I should marry every woman I meet. He wants me to settle down. He starts to look for his girlfriend in the crowd. I get a glimpse of her. She has long black hair tied in a single thick strand, interwoven with a length of bright red wool. Her eyes are as deep and as mysterious as his own, her skin is the color of butter chocolate.
“No sé,” I say. I don’t know. “Otra gringa.” Another gringa, I tell him. “Poquita confusada.” A little confused. “Como todo.” Just like the rest of us.
Lorenzo W. Milam