La Vida Mexico

…At The Inn At San Pancho

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The Heart Of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness
He was young, the man sitting beside me on flight 821, perhaps 20, an awkward age, neither here nor there, confusing and perilous. This particular specimen was covered with piercings and tattoos. I do not use the word covered loosely. He dripped metal, shards of shrapnel hanging from eyebrows and nose and cheeks and lips. Kissing him would require true love or a gun to the head.

Black tear drops fell from his eyes – a sign of what? – sadness, incompletion, insanity.  The arms and hands – each knuckle a different letter, impossible to read because he talked with them to the young woman beside him who had managed to Zulu her ears.* In addition to this distortion she too had a fair amount of tats, particularly around the neck. In all other ways she seemed as normal as most serial killers. There were snakes and exotic flowers and vines twisting round and round the boyfriend’s arms, a heart or two, a woman’s face, a hand.  Jesus lord, none of it made any sense. The powerlessness of addiction can be a frightening thing to behold, particularly if you have a limited amount of space, i.e. having only the one body to work your stuff out on. Enter Zulu — a blank canvas of a co-dependent, a giggler of all things, light to his dark, joy to his confusion.

The guy’s graffiti was more like a swarm than a masterpiece. I could see little cohesion in the mishmash of images and words, but the globs of green and the snake and the vines indicated a Heart of Darkness theme. If he were a wall or a subway car, he would be close to the limit. I wondered what lay beneath his jeans, his black t-shirt. No underwear, I was sure. He was tall, thin, not particularly well built, even a bit gawky.
For a while, I lost skin contact when he started snuggling with Zulu. He had that gruff sort of male sarcasm young men fall into when they are feeling awkward. Joke love. Oddly sweet. Human. Who is this guy, I think, returning to the safety of the Kindle where words know their place. What would I write on myself. What image is important enough to surrender a piece my flesh to.

Strange phrases emerge conversations: A duck landed on the pool, I got sunburned at that funeral, Great report card, Happy Birthday, Ticket to Ride, One Day At A Time, The Silence Between The Notes. Would I like a butterfly at the tip of my spine, a parrot on the back of my neck, a son’s name on each ankle? Shall I name my husbands, list them in small letters on an upper thigh with start and end dates. But more than the WHAT  is the WHY? Why do people tattoo themselves? For attention? For Identity? For a Cause? For Love? Rage? Fear?

It was difficult to concentrate on Elizabeth Strout’s new novel with all the action going on beside me. I managed a page or two and then a woman, younger than me but still old, with that crimped gray permed hair thing going on, overweight, in a yellow t-shirt.

“How are you two doing on the custom forms?”

The couple emerged from their huddle.

“Okay,” the girl said merrily. Yes, merrily. Sorry, but this Zulu girl was one happy, merry stretched lobe sort of kid.

“Sure you don’t need any help?”

“We’re good mom,” he says.

Mom? Mom?

“Okay, Dad and I are back there if you need us.”

“My soon to be mother in law,” he says to me. “We are going to Vallarta to check it out for our honeymoon.”

Flight Zone Mode has been pierced. The door is open. I step through.

“It is a great place for a honeymoon,” I say. “Very romantic.”

“My first time out of the country,” he says. “I’m nervous. All that drug stuff going on.”

Zulu giggles.

“Perfectly safe where we’re going,” I say, and explain about the cartels killing each other off in places to the north and south of Vallarta.

“Yeah, but look at me.”

And this is the first time I do look at him full face, full body, neck, arms, hands, face, knuckles, fingers, ears, the whole disaster of him

“You’ll be fine,” I say, knowing if I was a customs agent, I would drag him off to the nearest holding cell.

“You think? I mean they might think I have drugs.”

“They are not worried about you bringing drugs in,” I explain. “They are looking for things they can put duty on, like electronics you might try to see, or fruits and vegetables. They’re very concerned about fruits and vegetables for some reason. I was pulled to the side once because of a black banana I’d  forgotten to eat. You have any of that stuffed in your luggage.”


“Then you’re good to go.

No worries.”

The three of us, begin to chat. They sound eerily normally compared to how they look. He — no surprise —  is a tattoo artist by trade and she is his best customer, his muse-model.

As we are landing, his one hand holding hers, his other gripping the armrest (“I hate flying”), I see a short line of print at the edge of his t-shirt sleeve:
Truth Intimidates.

You can see me there in a pair of khakis with my flip flops off, a loose blue blouse, no makeup – plane-weary and wrinkled and suddenly aware of all that I do not know. Some flights are better than others.

*Earlobe stretching or ear gouging as well as implanting horns on your head and hanging by hooks in your flesh from great heights are both extensions of tattooing —  a darker attempt at pushing the edge of identity. A sacrifice of self to become more defined.  For more inform, check out How To Stretch an Ear Lobe in 8 simple steps on WikiHow.


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Lost and Found

Now, I have a cat. A second cat. A four week or so old cat – a cat without a birth date and no means of support. Or, more to the point, I have a lost cat. Or, I lost the cat. He is not outside in the dense Mexican countryside where danger lurks around every palm tree.  He is somewhere in my 900 square foot house.  He is under something or over something, behind something or in something. His tiny little cat heart is pulsing and he is alive, I assure myself, as I look for him everywhere, and then look everywhere for him again five minutes later. I look in baskets, behind curtains, in cabinets and closets and bowls. Finally, I realize that the kitty must be dead. In between calling “here, kitty, kitty” like some demented old cat woman, I sit quietly letting my ears wander in and out of cracks and corners, searching for the high pitched chirp of Fabio who weighs less than 10 ounces and has a brain the size of a gabanza bean.

Cats can hide anywhere. They can disappear inside empty rooms. Burrow into mouse holes. Flatten themselves out as if ironed and vanish into walls. This is the difference between dogs and cats.  Find a dog that can hide and I’ll show you a cat who can whistle.   

I consider calling a cat whisperer I know in Marin Country  (where else?) but at $75 for a half hour Skype session, and a wavering belief in cat psychics, I worry instead. It is the least I can do. But worry, like hives, spreads from one small lost cat to the nuclear option.  In the end, this is all I can do – tell you a story of the cats in my life while in the back of my mind I listen for the smallest sound, the merest swish of fur against the tile floor.

Once upon a time, I was afraid of cats. In fact, I hated cats. My family hated cats. The whole neighborhood, possibly the entire country hated cats back in the 50s. It was said they were sneaky and carried germs and were not loyal and loving and smart enough to learn how to roll over and beg.  Cats were stupid.  Back in the 50s when kids had dogs and gold fish and while they lived, yellow chicks at Easter, no one owned a cat. No one I knew even thought about owning a cat. The boys in my   neighborhood swirled them around by their tails and threw matches at them when they weren’t busy kicking little girls’ shins. 

Out of that dark and triumphant decade of regimental thinking when America was tensing for world dominance, and my father was recovering from WWII, I developed many fears — atomic bombs, my next door neighbor Billy Miller, my mother, spiders, going bald, dying of cancer before high school and, as if all that was not enough – cats. Given this early distaste for them, it is odd how regularly cats continue to arrive on my doorstep. Strangers walk up to me with box loads of cats, friends beg me to take the best of the litter.  The world is full of skinny, homeless cats and until the beginning of my sixth decade I managed to refuse everyone who ever offered me one.

Since that time, however, I have, except for the lost kitty, accepted two cats into my life.  One came from a friend who was unable to continue taking care of it – a matter of having paid an inordinate amount of money for a brother and sister pedigree Terrier team trained in the art of killing felines.  Whiskey, named for her coloring, was a bulky Henry the III of cats, haughty, demanding and cranky. Like so many cats, she did not have a specific birth date, or even a birth year. Whiskey and I had a few disdainful years together, some of them in Mexico where Whiskey, an Inside Cat, spent much of her time sleeping, and the rest of it chowing down kibble. In her last years, she took to my bed, eating from her bowl on the night table, and only stirring herself to address the kitty litter every now and again.

Next came Beggar, another cat without a birth date, who showed up in the garden one morning and never left.  Having made it clear she would tolerate no incursion into her territory, Whiskey settled into old age gracefully while Beggar assumed the role of guard cat, patrolling the perimeters for hostiles.  I adapted to having an indoor and an outdoor cat. The seasons turned and Whiskey died and Beggar and I decided it was time to pursue an inside/outside relationship. He began sharing my bed at night, and continued clearing the property of snakes and rodents and geckos during the day.  Resting at night, prowling by day, Beggar has grown fat and wizened. Most guests fall for him rather dramatically, some even asking if, missing their own cat, they can sleep with him now and again during their stay. They feed him tuna and take his picture and Beggar is thrilled to oblige.

All has been well in the kingdom until Quinn, the gardener, arrived last week on Mexico’s Mothers’ Day with a Nike shoe box. Tucked inside, small enough to fit in a child’s sneaker was a pouf of white with big blue eyes and stand up ears.  I hustled him off that same day to the vet who dipped him for fleas and promptly snipped off the poor guy’s tiny cojones. 

Back home, the fat sassy guard cat was displeased. Well, to be honest, Beggar was enraged by the newcomer who, due to size and a vast sense of bravado, is temporarily an indoor cat.  Our once tranquil days and nights are full these days of squealing and hissing and someone-is-going-to-get-hurt wrestling. The kitten will not leave Beggar alone.  He will not stop gnawing on his tail or eating his kibble or flinging himself underneath his body looking for something to suck on. The other evening just before sunset I caught Beggar, seemingly at his wits end, looking into the gathering darkness as if about to end it all. Never have two males without balls fought harder to get into the bed of one old woman.

And now Fabio is lost and Beggar is begging as only he can to be let in and given his evening treat. I open the door, grab a can of tuna and scrape it into Beggar’s bowl. I feel a soft wet brush against my ankle and there he is – Fabio is back! He is not dead. He has been waiting for Beggar.  Inside, outside or otherwise, these two cats – the second and the third – are here to stay. 

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What It Was Like

Stage One:

You are anxious – exhausted from driving cross country from New England to Mexico. You have sold or given away everything you owned in the rainy days of September 2005 except for a king size mattress, your father’s antique bookshelf, a square cocktail table you bought at an auction for $75, and 600 books.

 You are temporarily living on the edges of Puerto Vallarta, out by the airport where you can hear planes landing and taking off from the pool on the top of the shopping center where your crappy “studio” apartment — long and narrow and dark — is covered in grime. You feel always as if you are stepping or sitting on some old expat’s skin. Outside the bang and clatter and rumble of taxis and delivery trucks reminds you that life as you know it has stopped, and life as you want it to be appears impossible.

 Your husband, a former bartender and used car salesman, who you once thought was the love of your life, is conning visiting gringos primed with Drambuie and dinner cruises into buying time shares at a resort along the 100 kilometer stretch of Pacific coast shoreline the tourism arm of the Mexican government has christened The Riviera Nyarit.  On maps, this burgeoning Mexican paradise has been known for centuries as the Bahia de Banderas, but Riviera paints a significantly more seductive picture, and it is hoped that it will lure greedy land developers south of The Wall.

 While he –the husband of eight years — manipulates customers into shelling out dollars for slices of time, you drive back and forth  — an hour each way —  to the fishing village of San Pancho where you pretend to supervise the construction of an Inn, which is rising slowly — very slowly — like a child’s set of square white blocks, one placed atop the other on the sandy soil on a hill overlooking La Riviera. Once it is built, you plan to live more happily within your marriage than you have managed to do in the last few years. You plan to piece together a good life with social security checks and revenue from the inn. You see yourself reading in a hammock, sipping lemonade, your cat named Whiskey purring on your belly. It is sunny – all dreams of the future are sunny.