Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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A man is not complete until he is married. Then he is finished.
— Zsa Zsa Gabor
Jerez de García Salinas, Zacatecas, Mexico
At a backyard barbecue under the tangled mesquite trees around his run-down but peaceable home, Victor, one of my fellow English-as-a-second-language teachers at the Instituto de Inglés, insists that there is nothing in the States for me, no reason for me to return. I know, I admit, but Mexico is not my country; I can’t go on pretending. Besides, I’m broke, and my visa is up. On the grill Victor cooks pork chops marinated in orange juice, garlic, and beer, alongside anchos and helote: chiles and corn on the cob. His two dogs run in mindless circles around the great shady yard with its crumbling stone walls. Victor was born here in this Mexican valley town, but he grew up in LA, and as comfortable as he is in this place, he will always be an American at heart: Eric Clapton albums, In-N-Out Burgers, Buffalo Bills football (Thurman Thomas was his man), separation of church and state. I am the only one in his circle of acquaintances who can satisfactorily discuss these areas of knowledge with him. We also talk a lot about his favorite subject: women, our students especially. He’s amused that I like the dark ones, he the light ones. He’s dark (he likes to point out); I’m light.
Victor married twice in the U.S., taught in various LA public high schools, lost two houses in two divorces, then got tired of the traffic jams, the gangs, the drugs, the incivility, the cost of living, the relentless individualism. So he moved back here, where he lives with a local girl he intends to marry. Despite his matrimonial flops, civil-sanctioned union is still one of the three pillars in his triumvirate of happiness, along with fire (he turns a marinated chop on the grill) and a dog. “You ought to get yourself a wife,” he says to me, as he does every time we talk, and as usual he makes the case for the servile, steady, faithful Mexican woman over her implacable, masculine American counterpart, she of ceaseless acquisition who files for divorce and takes your house.
I can’t begin to explain my situation to Victor, nor to any of the Trumpeting Army of Eternally Optimistic Matchmakers. Though I’ve had my share of romance in my life and dream of picket fences and pudding in the evening as much as anyone, I’ve never understood how two people can stay together. Just going steady as a youngster created mind-boggling anxiety for me. Proms and other serious courting rituals were most often salvaged (and then savaged) by drugs and alcohol. I haven’t found the “right one” in thirty years. Not even close. I’m forty-four, and unless you’re talking about some kind of shuffleboard-and-square-dancing arrangement, I’m long past the usual age of marriageability. Some of my contemporaries already have grandchildren.
I tell Victor, as I tell all my nosy matchmaker friends, that even though I’m not altogether opposed to the possibility of an amorous adventure strolling in while I’m having my grapefruit and coffee, I’m also not so lonely or horny or discontented that I would take a foreign bride. And I doubt that a wife, exotic or otherwise, would have any effect other than to complicate my malaise. I sleep in odd fits and am fiddle-footed, insecure, and inclined to depressions. Even I have lost all patience with me. Often I wish I would die just so I could run down that dark tunnel with the white light at the end and kick God in the balls, and I’ve said this out loud in a variety of perversely imaginative forms. I don’t need a live-in housekeeper or a loyal companion who will become annoyed at the way I chew my potatoes. I’ve been doing my own housework since I moved out of my parents’ home at age seventeen. My once strong and steady sexual appetite has atrophied over the years into a merciful dormancy, and I don’t care to reawaken it for the purposes of satisfying a set of lowbrow, pop-song platitudes. I’ll be single until I die, and I like it that way; at least it gives me more time in the evenings to read.
Twenty-two days before my visa expires, I’m standing in the doorway of the Instituto de Inglés, and here comes Cristina across the street: tight red sweater, the sun doing tricks in her hair. I’ve admired her a dozen times from afar, but we’ve never talked. Though she is busty, her metal-rimmed specs give her an academic look: the head librarian as played by Jane Russell. She also reminds me (the slight incisor spaces, the clapping eyelashes, and the labored, bashful smile) of a girl I slept with for a whole summer long ago.
And tonight Cristina is my student: strange luck, that. I have only two students all night, both hoping to pass on to advanced status. I don’t like either of their chances. We have fun, though. I give them my best. My lessons are unconventional. Since the goal of most students is to live and work in America, I put them there: in a store, in a rental office, in front of an employer, at a car dealership. We act out scenarios: the bus has dropped you off three miles from home; the cashier has given you the wrong change; there’s a sale, and all the handbags are half off. Can you tell me where Oxnard is? Can you say “Sha-CAH-go,” not “CHEE-cah-go”? Instead of useless textbook phrases like “Will you have my trousers pressed by Monday?” I teach them such utilitarian indispensables as:
I need to rent an apartment.
I’m looking for a job.
Let’s go out for burgers, then go to Wal-Mart.
The car needs to be fixed again. We should’ve bought a Toyota.
Duck! He’s got a gun!
Get out of my way.
Why don’t you learn how to drive?
I’m going to sue you.
I’d like a lottery ticket, please.
I need to rent an apartment.
I’m looking for a job.
Let’s go out for burgers, then go to Wal-Mart.
The car needs to be fixed again. We should’ve bought a Toyota.
Duck! He’s got a gun!
Get out of my way.
Why don’t you learn how to drive?
I’m going to sue you.
I’d like a lottery ticket, please.
As I regard my new student, I feel as if I’ve been drugged. I’m aware of the potent arsenal of tricks at lust’s disposal, but this has an altogether different feel. I offer to walk her home. On the way I suggest we have coffee somewhere. “OK,” she says. I ask where. “Bizarro,” she says, naming a wacky artists’ cafe six blocks south and west. We go there and drink coffee and trade pasts. The motley bohemian club is decorated like a fun house, with paintings by local artists on the walls, mezclado dance pop and Pink Floyd on the jukebox, and patrons playing backgammon, Chinese checkers, and chess. I think it rather ominous that our table is made from a bed. Cristina is a courteous young woman, good eye contact, a bit intimidated perhaps to be dining with el maestro, but easy to talk to, even if her English is poor. She’s been dabbling at her language studies for nine years, moving from one school to the next, as if through the exercise of attending classes she will somehow absorb English without having to work at it. She plans to pass the test to graduate to the advanced level in two weeks. Not a chance.
I tell Cristina I’ll help her study, which means another “date” tomorrow. I haven’t been on a date since I can remember. Is an arrangement to help a student study really a “date”? Oh, well. Nothing will come of this — how could it? — though my socks and brain are full of helium, and even the haziest suicidal inclination has veered off like a wildfire to the east. And what is this peculiar rustling in my loins, like a paper flower unfolding? She’s a dentist, by the way. Imagine dating a woman you can’t afford to see. I haven’t told her I’m leaving for the States in twenty-two days.
Our second date begins with cakes and ale at the Café Azul, a more sedate club with high ceilings and almost exclusively American and British music on the stereo. I’m shocked that she likes Echo and the Bunnymen. Unlike almost every other Mexican I know, Cristina is punctual: another point in her favor. She also insists on paying, and though you might think, Well, of course, she’s a dentist, she and I make about the same hourly wage. Her diffident reserve, her regal sadness appeal to me. I wonder if her sadness is the same as mine: the sorrow of having been dealt a poor hand by Cruel Affection. But she has a good excuse for not having found a mate: all the men have gone north to work. No wonder her two big dreams are to learn English and see the U.S.A.: that’s where all her potential suitors are.
I walk her home, taking the street side, as we American boys used to do with our girlfriends thirty years ago, in case gangsters came rumbling down the street spraying their machine guns at the sidewalks. (It’s called “chivalry,” a mocked institution today in the U.S., where men are slobs and women barely have the patience to civilize them.) I feel this strange combination of hunger, sympathy, and paternity for Cristina. She’s eighteen years my junior, and I really have no business being with her. Yet in the short time we’ve known each other, we seem to have formed some kind of bond. On the sidewalk in front of her house, while her dog scratches and snorts on the other side of the metal gate, we arrange another study date.
In the evenings I’m eager to see her walking out of the Cliníca Dental del Oro in her white jacket. My feelings cannot be a result of loneliness, for I have lived alone for too long and am too good at it, and I have no real desire to incinerate myself in another foolhardy liaison. Cristina has reason to be wary too. She has confessed that the men in her life always leave her; she doesn’t know why. Perhaps this explains our cautious, low-key approach, our reluctance to touch. (By now the pretense of “studying” has expired.) There is little expectation on either side. We are both accustomed to being let down and close to the end of our periods of romantic eligibility — she on the brink of a devout spinsterhood (by Mexican standards), I wondering whether it will be assisted or long-term care. In this land, disappointment is expected, and tragedy has ruled since Cortés scraped his first merchant ship upon the Mesoamerican shore. Yet there’s really nothing to lose, so why shouldn’t we enjoy one another’s company for whatever brief time remains to us?
Only thirteen days before my departure, I sit in Cristina’s parlor under an oversize religious oil painting, her growling poodle Zeus jumping in and out of my lap. I’ve just met her skinny dental-student brother and two grinning, beautiful sisters, one an accountant, the other getting her computer degree. Macho Papá is the equivalent of a high-school principal. Mother is a traditional, hand-wringing, financially cloistered sweetheart. In the parents’ expressions I see that I have stolen their daughter’s heart. I have rescued her from ignominy; we are going to have twelve white sons who will all be pitchers for the Toronto Blue Jays. Boy, if they could just talk a little slower. Afterward my Latina girlfriend and I walk the jasmine-and-orange-blossom-scented streets to the only theater in town (she pays), where we watch a Spanish film about transvestites, the third Spanish movie about transvestites I’ve seen this year.
Earlier this evening I showed Cristina how to get an e-mail account so that we can correspond while I’m gone. I’ve suggested that I might return. Though I believe romance is often just an excuse for avoiding obligations, such as growing up or going somewhere you don’t really want to go, I still feel it: this tugging in my stomach and rush of ringing, hayseed pleasure that I have not known in a long time. I dread the thought of returning to America. If I stay here, though, and let my visa expire, as many expatriates have done, I might have trouble getting out.
I’m lying sleepless in bed one night when an idea sprouts wildly in my mind: Why not take her with me? She’s lonely and bored here, and though she is la doctora, a woman of prestige, she’s chained for a pittance to a dental chair owned by an overlord in the capital city, who will keep her indentured as long as he can. The concept of women working en masse in the professional ranks in Mexico is fairly new: part social evolution, part necessity since most of the men have left. Employers have discovered that the women are easier to manipulate, browbeat, and underpay; they are more content to live with their parents, to resign themselves to a courtyard life of dresses and shoes and thus sustain the magic, dancing aristocracy. If Cristina had just five thousand dollars, she could open her own consultorio. And if her English were serviceable, all the gringo business — the root-canal cash crop, the Canadians drifting down for 65 percent savings (dental coverage for adults under retirement age is not part of the social package there) — would line up at her door. A few months in the U.S. could help with both the money and her English. And since I have no other obligations outside of paying tobacco taxes and filling a modest casket soon, there’s no reason not to suggest it. This could be exciting, even useful. Who knows?
© Martin Fishman
When I announce to Cristina that I’m willing to take her to America with me, she regards me with the open mouth and glassy-eyed stare of a goldfish. She’s convinced I’m joking. I explain my plan, which revolves around her eventually returning to Mexico with five grand. She seems upset now. “I don’t want money,” she says. “I want us.” Of course, I sputter. I only meant . . . But, look, we’ll be together. We’ll travel and point at mountains and billboards, dip our tater tots in the same ketchup, and see how harmonious we are. The famous American test drive. Who knows what will happen? I can’t give you any guarantees, but let’s see how we do together. (Oh, my Spanish really begins to suck when I’m backed into a corner.) She says she will talk to her parents.
The answer is yes! Wow, that was quick. She already has a tourist visa, which I’m convinced would have expired unused had I not appeared. Her parents look as if they may have me canonized in the church. I’m happy too, of course, though a single question has begun to plague me: What the hell am I doing?
Well, too late to turn back now. I’m good for my word. (What else have I got?) Besides, I want to do one worthwhile thing on this planet before I hang up my hat. This excellent young woman has a dream, and I hold the cards to help make it come true. And her father has given her the equivalent of two thousand dollars American, which looks frighteningly like a dowry. (He does seem a tad relieved to get one of his three unmarried daughters out of the house, now that I think about it.) But don’t you worry, Papá. I’m an honorable man. We’re going to make this work. You’re not going to be disappointed. Even if we don’t live happily ever after, she’s going to have her own consultorio, free bridges and crowns for the whole family, and she’ll be able to order competently off an American menu, her virtue intact.
Tonight, as we do every night, Cristina and I work on her English, which refuses to improve. She’s not stupid, just set in her ways and, like many Mexican women, accustomed to having someone else manage her affairs. American cults and corporations dine on these types, so I’m trying to instill in her some modicum of independent thinking. She has no idea what she’s getting into: fast-talkin’, hard-shuckin’, blood-spittin’, heavy-telemarketin’, sue-your-pants-off America. I paint her a realistic portrait of chronically unhappy, tattooed people glued to their cellphones. She doesn’t believe me. She knows the streets of America are paved with gold.
I’ve always been proud of my spontaneity, the fact that every year I’m living someplace I would never have guessed I’d be the year before, but this — boarding a plane with a woman I barely know, in complete charge of her, a dentist and devout Catholic who barely speaks English, who doesn’t drive, who has never eaten peanut butter, who doesn’t know who John Wayne, Bob Dylan, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are, who has never seen a real elephant or giraffe, never even been on an airplane — well, this is stretching even my definition of spontaneity.
Borderland America is nearly indistinguishable from borderland Mexico: they are opposite shores of the same lagoon, swapping the same trashy tide. Cristina is reluctant to speak English. I think she is feeling excited and confused at once as her romantic notions of the U.S. crash against the rusted, littered shore. After we clear customs, my parents meet us on the other side. Though they don’t show it, they must be surprised by my decision to bring this foreign woman home. They are aware, through my correspondence, of my plan to help her. And though I suppose they would like to see me married, even under slightly unusual (see: “desperate”) circumstances, I want to assure them there is small possibility of this.
Cristina has a tourist visa valid for six months, and legally she cannot work. We are not going to stay here in San Diego for many reasons, chiefly the cost of living and the fact that everywhere we go someone speaks fluent Spanish with her. She cannot understand much English, even when it’s enunciated slowly. I need to take her someplace where she will be forced to learn the language. It won’t be fun, but it’s the only way we can fulfill her dream. And then, despite the visa limitations, we need to get her a job.
Before harsh reality sets in, however, we enjoy ourselves for a short time with my parents. “You have such a beautiful house,” Cristina says, head laid against hands folded as if in prayer. “Your parents make me very happy.” Her eyes shine when I take her to the ocean, but they really sparkle when I take her to the mall. California is too much, all these places to shop, a dreamland — if you make enough money. Today she found a shop full of gaudy items and fell in love with an acrylic paperweight full of floating coins, glitter, tiny dice, and miniature playing cards. Though I said it wasn’t necessary, she bought one for my mom. It was worth the trip just to see Cristina’s thoughtfulness and how wide-eyed she was in the gaudy shop. I wish I felt slightly less like a scientist. I do love her, though; don’t get me wrong.
On Sundays I drive her to the nearest Catholic church, where they have the dried-up, sparsely attended English Mass at ten o’clock and the juicy, standing-room-only Spanish-speaking Mass at one. Cristina’s not crazy about the looks of this church, which resembles a modern-art sculpture you might see in a park in San Francisco. The artsy crucifix above the altar might be a rendition of a Norwegian Olympic skiing hero. In her ancient, ornate, colonial sanctuary back home, a towering golden statue of Mother Mary resides above all.
And it isn’t just the churches that don’t pass muster. “Americans are zombies,” she declares (zombie being the same word in both languages). “Americans are cold. Americans are robots.” (Robot is also the same word; see how easy it is to speak another language?) Offended, I leap to the defense of my countrymen. I can make fun of them — they’re my people — but we’re lining you up the number-one, blue-plate special: American Dream with fries on the side. So think twice about these cavalier remarks. Also consider how distant people seem when you can’t understand what they are saying. Also realize that fully half the people who live in this state have recently come — many at the risk of jail and death — from your country. And it won’t be long, if things work according to plan, before you’re attached to a cellphone, butterfly-tattooed ankle laid up on knee, Xanax kicking in, haggling with the credit-card company over that sudden outlandish jump in your APR.
Compounding her culture shock, Cristina is getting to know the real me: not a tall, rich gringo pacifico who is livening up her humdrum life, but a guy with little money and not many prospects, who has never stayed anywhere or with anyone for long. Today we walked along the cloudy beach for four miles, from Belmont Park to Crystal Pier, and I told her all my crazy beach stories, which only made her frown as if the sun were in her eyes. My past is so wild it appears to have been lived by Peter Pan sniffing model-airplane glue. I told her she could go home whenever she wanted, no hard feelings. Cristina told me she would think about it.
In the meantime, she has news from home that her poodle Zeus is misbehaving in her absence and her mother and two sisters are going to Puerto Vallarta. Cristina wishes she could go with them. She has a bad case of homesickness. I keep expecting her to say, “I want to go back,” and I am prepared emotionally: what once would’ve been a lightning-bolt panic at the thought of losing her is now a feeling like an avocado pit in my stomach. She is strong in her way, and I am in mine — though I don’t imagine we are any more suited for one another than the average tourist and her guide.
Despite all her reservations, Cristina announces she will go with me, wherever I decide. I am the reason she is here. How anyone could think this is a little beyond me, a sign of weakness or lunacy, perhaps. I ask where she’d like to go and show her places on the map. The U.S.A. might as well be Jupiter to her. She doesn’t know where New York City is. Idaho is just a funny sound.
I have been offered my old cooking job in Chadron, Nebraska. I lived there long ago for a few months, and every year since then my former employers have contacted me and asked me to work the summer, usually at a decent wage with a free room in the hotel. I don’t voluntarily seek out nightmare cooking positions, and I am reluctant to return to a place I’ve already lived, but this seems the most realistic option. So Nebraska for the summer it is: the nightmare cooking job for me and — what else? — maid duty for Cristina.
It’s April in Nebraska, and the steady wind coming down off the mountains and blowing across the plains is raw. This small town, dotted with trailers and empty houses, is so sparsely populated that it feels deserted. There’s a Catholic church, but Cristina doesn’t attend Mass there; she wouldn’t know what they were saying. When we first got here, I tried to sleep on a foldout in the kitchenette of our hotel room, leaving Cristina in the bed with her decorum, but we were lost in America now, and she was giving me Wild West looks. I’m glad she brought her gods with her. Mine are more like modern American parents, drifted off in the pursuit of their own cosmic interests. But I promised her I would say no more of our intimate encounters. I may be a public confessor whose secrets are magic coins given to readers for their long walks through the lonesome forests, but Cristina is a classy orthodox woman who keeps her confessions private. So when we go behind closed doors and she lets her hair hang down, you’ll just have to wait out in the hall. Sorry.
Day one at work, Cristina gets her first close look at one of these newfangled “vacuum cleaner” contraptions and has the same problem I always do: how the hell do you turn it on? Without an oven in our room and in no financial position to eat out frequently, we assemble cold lunches and microwave dinners: canned chow mein, ravioli, black-eyed peas. She has her first Caesar salad, her first pastrami-and-Swiss, her first fudge brownie. We drink red wine and listen to cds. (The Wallflowers and Toad the Wet Sprocket will always remind me of this time.) I smoke in the hall, looking out over the wide, snow-dusted prairie and wondering what in heaven’s name I have done.
Until summer we are just about the only tenants in the hotel, so there’s not much work to do. Cristina does get to examine the personal effects of the occasional guest: the itinerant salesman, the parole officer, the truck driver, the Church of Christ missionary with his suitcase full of miniature liquor bottles and bag of mysterious white powder. At 3:30 every afternoon I leave her to work my shift. She is so far from home she might as well be in Greenland. There is no one for her to talk to. She tells me she studies, plays with her talking dictionary, arranges her belongings, and watches the snow blow across the single high window and the screen of the tiny black-and-white TV.
After we’ve spent a few weeks in the hotel, a friend offers us a house rent-free till the end of summer. It is a dark, small abode across from the railroad tracks, only two bedrooms, one no bigger than a walk-in closet, the north side windowless on account of the battering winds coming off the high plains day and night. There is a small fireplace so inefficient that it is actually colder in the house with a fire going, and the flaming logs occasionally tumble onto the carpet — wahoo! Now all I need is a dog to complete my triumvirate of happiness; isn’t that right, Victor?
I tell Cristina things will get better. We both sleep a great deal. We talk, take long walks, and lie on the futon that we’ve dragged into the living room and placed in front of the fireplace because the back bedroom is better suited to raising penguins than sleeping. A garter snake occasionally flickers up the drain in the bathroom, and Cristina flees, shouting: “Víbora! Víbora!” Like Caesar salads and rock music, all the modern conveniences, such as toasters, thermostats, and a washer and dryer (something her mother has never known), do nothing to improve her mood. Uprooted from her gentle native soil, her language, her religion, she feels as if she is losing her identity. Over and over she says this, and whatever might give her comfort — her church, her saints, her American paisanos — all seem to have lost their identities too. There is this carnival ride called the “American Dream,” and into the whale’s mouth glide the motorboats full of hopefuls, but out the other side emerge figures sodden and grotesque and hard-eyed, cynical sneers at the corners of their mouths. Cristina has always dreamt of entering this tunnel, but now she resists, even though she could make fifteen bucks an hour here as a dental hygienist.
All I can do is stay at her side and remind her how difficult change is. I tell her how grandiosely lost I have been myself, having spent most of my life in new places, meeting new people, learning a new set of rules. “But you were in your own country,” she counters. Not always, I tell her, and even then it didn’t often seem so. But I am of little help. So we play Yahtzee and drink and eat well in front of the fire. Just about everything I prepare is new to her: mashed potatoes, barbecued ribs, blueberry muffins, sloppy Joes, grilled cheese sandwiches. Accustomed to soda-pop-flavored wine, she begins to appreciate the dark, cheap reds of which my platelets are composed. She smokes with me guiltily, even greedily, for the same reason I do: those surges of well-being are too hard to find any other way.
In July, her visa almost up, Cristina and I convene at the kitchen table to decide which direction each of us will go. A dearth of work for her and a few unexpected expenses have left us with less money saved than we’d planned. It’s unlikely she can get another six-month travel visa so soon, and I don’t want her working illegally anymore. Because we have been living as husband and wife, I feel I have to offer to marry her. I don’t know if we’re compatible; we’ve hardly had time for anything but keeping her from the brink of sorrow. “Marry her,” advises the woman who owns the hotel. “Marry her,” echoes my friend who has lent me this house. “You won’t find a better girl.” Miserable as she may be, and as lacking in self-confidence, there is no denying Cristina’s solid sweetness, her practical intelligence, her loyalty, her excellent work habits, and those Cupid lips. And as much as she hates America, she is filling this house with plants, prints, pots, clothes, candles, curtains, rugs, an aquarium. She has grown fond of the television show The Jeffersons. Peanut butter has finally cast its spell over her.
Marrying Cristina might be my last chance to be a man. Is it really, after all these years, not too late? Admittedly I am tempted by the prospect of a sedentary life, not having to pack up my junk and go off to some strange place to nail pallets together or solder mirrors onto iron fish heads by the dirty river until I have enough money to move on. If I stay here, I could collect my notebooks and manuscripts, begin the long-haul work on a novel. For once I could enjoy a reputation as a good neighbor: no more having to convince the mayor, the dog catcher, and the village idiot that I am not a criminal on the lam. And I won’t have to go out and get a new lousy job every few months, because I’ll already have one!
But what do you want to do, Cristina? It’s up to you.
She begins to cry, and who wouldn’t, given the choice between returning home with nothing and marrying me?
Poe Ballantine has done it again. His essay “Wide-Eyed in the Gaudy Shop” [March 2007] contains the single funniest sentence I’ve ever read in The Sun: “Often I wish I would die just so I could run down that dark tunnel with the white light at the end and kick God in the balls.” Knowing, through his writing, that he is a person of faith just makes it that much funnier.