for Mom and Pop
My wife, Cristina, is convinced I am not happy on this so-called summer vacation in her somnolent hometown in the mountains of Zacatecas, the Colorado of Mexico. We’ve been married for three years now and have a young son, Tom. She’s thirty; I’m forty-eight. (I know, I know.) We’re staying with her parents, and this is the first time she has seen her family since I plucked her from the instituto four blocks from here, where she was a student of English and I was her teacher, and hauled her up to the United States to make all her dreams come true. Whether or not I’ve fulfilled my role as the Magic Gringo Fairy has been rendered immaterial by the fact that we haven’t been getting along for a while.
And this “vacation” isn’t helping matters. No one in this house speaks English, and my rudimentary Spanish makes me feel like an old, deaf hillbilly trying to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on a banjo with only one string. Also there’s nowhere for me to hide. I can’t stay in our hot bedroom reading books; I have to be sociable. (To be fair, I expect the same behavior from my wife when she comes to stay with my parents.) My in-laws are generous and hospitable, but they speak at me with merciless lightning brilliance and expect me actually to respond. As their guest, I sit at every meal waiting to be served first and trying to think of intelligent things to say. I nod and smile while I cut the meat from my pork spine and count how many days are left before I can go home.
Because of our language barrier, up until a year or so ago Cristina and I could not communicate so well. With little but the physical facts before us, the early days of our marriage were often challenging, even exhilarating. Gradually, however, the advent of adult communication and the steady eroding effect of familiarity exposed the bedrock of our opposing philosophies. She likes to acquire, for instance; I don’t. She is by nature sedentary; I’m not. She is traditional; I am a product of anything-goes America. She does not like to be alone; I do. She considers my writing a folly and often reminds me that we have no money; I don’t regard this as a problem.
My wife is acutely aware of what others think; she frets over appearances, has high expectations, puts a lot of pressure on herself, and controls her disappointment by predicting that nothing will work. She moves from doubt to distrust to complaint to worry in a predictable cycle that often erupts into a fight — and I’ve discovered that my sweet, mild-mannered wife likes to fight. Having no shortage of subjects we disagree on, we might do battle as many as three times a day. We have argued so much that the real source of our conflicts has grown too large and distorted to confront or even recognize, so we hiss and snarl at each other over trifles, each hoping to land that final, deciding blow of blame.
To compound matters, Tom, born twenty-one months ago, has developed within the space of the past few days a chronic cough, nightly asthma, constant diarrhea, and a suppurating diaper rash that looks like a third-degree burn. Since we arrived in Mexico from our home in Nebraska, the world has flipped on him: the language, the music, the food, the cheap paper diapers (which seem to aggravate his rash), the people, the air — everything is different. Wildly inconsolable, he demands to be held almost constantly, and if he isn’t being held, he’s pushing over flowerpots, breaking plants, yanking laundry from the line, or attacking Zeus, the family poodle. My in-laws’ house, like many in this part of Mexico, is built around an open patio, so when exiting any room, one is immediately outdoors among the mirrored pots full of vandalized geraniums. It rains nightly here in the summer, and there’s really no way to deter our son from his diabolical pursuit of the poor toy poodle in the rain (cough, cough; squirt, squirt).
I avoided marriage for most of my life because I didn’t think I would be any good at it — and I’m not — but I will admit that even a marriage in turmoil has its benefits. It wards off loose women, bad dates, late-night visitors, pointless binges, impetuous trips to Montreal, and insinuating questions about extended bachelorhood. (Just what kind of gringo fairy am I, anyway?) It has provided a sense of concrete responsibility that, combined with a lack of free time, has dispelled that old, constant chorus of suicidal demons in my head. Marriage is what grown-up people do, and I now belong, at least ostensibly, to their club. My friends commiserate. My mother is content. Whatever may come of my written works, I am the author, finally, of a fleshly progeny.
Still, I love that line by poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude.” But my wife is not familiar with Rilke, and solving our difficulties is not a matter of my explaining things to her. I’ve been doing that for three years, in two languages, and neither of us has changed.
Sharp on the lookout for any chance to escape my in-laws’ house, I often take the boy for walks. In the mornings we might stroll to the plaza, where he plows through flocks of pigeons, frolics with other children, swipes with impunity at plants, cackles back at the grackles, and flirts with adults. While I’m out, I usually stop in for a chat at the Hotel Jardin, where the American expatriates hold their morning convention. I got to know most of them when I was living here, before I met Cristina. As I sip my coffee and savor my beloved mother tongue, Tom scales the stairs, tries to pour hot coffee over his head, visits with every table, and repeatedly brings me the button from the spigot on the water cooler. Despite his maladies, he is an encantador, a charmer. Without fail he is described as guapo or bonito — handsome or beautiful. If he only knew what he’s in for. You see, Tom will be baptized in a few days. His mother has brought us here specifically for the purpose of insuring his soul with God; she has even spent a thousand pesos (about a hundred dollars) on a toddler-sized ice-cream-white suit with corsage, bow tie, and Pat Boone shoes for the occasion.
Though for three and a half years my wife’s been avoiding American Catholicism, with all its shortcuts, spiritless hymns, and liberal mumblings, she is still a believer. I am not a Catholic, as you may have guessed. If I had to assign myself a denomination, it would be something like Firmly in the Camp of Creation but Feeling No Need to Hump the Lord’s Leg. I admire Catholicism, however, and have no objection to highly symbolic systems of worship ensconced in the warm Latin colors of jumbled history. I don’t hold creepy, hypocritical priests against the Church, nor do I have anything against people muttering abstruse verse in costume for the purpose of creating a benevolent mythical atmosphere. And I appreciate the glorious achievements of Catholicism: its potent social networks; its depth of wisdom and experience; its laudable moral emphasis; its hospitals and schools and largess to the disenfranchised. I was always envious of children who attended Catholic school, partly for their courteous and well-spoken manner, but mostly because they were actually getting an education.
And though I am dubious about my own requisite appearance in the baptism ceremony, I find myself in favor of the idea. At the very least the sacrament may soothe Tom’s demonic mood. Perhaps it will even relieve him of responsibility for the sins of his infidel father, who burns yet on earth, never mind in the Great Beyond.
For the last few days at the hotel, my fellow gringos have been plotting a night of poker. Before I got married and returned to the U.S., five or six of us used to play every Saturday night. Now Joe is dead, ninety-year-old Tomas has vanished (even his children don’t know where he is), and Les has moved four hours away to live in pioneer squalor in San Luis Potosí, where only one other American, a drug addict, resides. But there are fresh expats — Brian from Canada and Richard from Texas — champing at the bit to take their place. Cristina is eager for me to go, so that at last I will be “happy.” And I haven’t had a night out by myself since the day we got married. Les even says he’ll drive on down, as soon as he gets his Buick fixed.
The game is finally set for Friday afternoon and evening at the house of Ismael the woodcarver, who lives cater-corner to the Super Bol, a bowling alley that either is or isn’t closed, depending on whom you talk to. Ismael is moving rapidly toward the late stages of emphysema and is unhappy in his own semimatrimonial situation. The last time I talked to him, three years ago in his covered wood shop outside his tiny bungalow, he told me that the only thing missing in his solitary life was “a good piece of ass.” Well, he got that at last, from the woman who came to clean his rooms every week, and she now lives upstairs with her daughter. He lives downstairs and doesn’t get much from her anymore but cross looks. He’s confounded and bitter — but aren’t we all, in our relentless campaign to fulfill our trivial desires? At least, I tell him, he’s lifted this mother and daughter out of dirt-floor-no-electricity poverty, and he should feel good about that.
Les, who was supposed to be here by noon, calls at 5 P.M. and says that the few mechanics in the pueblo where he lives have not been able to solve his Buick’s mysterious electrical problem, but he’s going to try to make it anyway. I told my wife I would be home by midnight. We decide to start with only four players. Brian, the florid, thoroughly charming Canadian hypochondriac, sits to my right. Richard, who had a stroke at age forty-nine and still has pronounced left-hemisphere paralysis and halting speech, sits across from me. The veteran poker player might say to himself, fondling his chin, Now, here’s a chance for some easy winnings, but at the rate I’ve started in on my bottle of Jimador tequila, any oddsmaker worth his salt would give the edge to the stroke victim.
Initially I am winning (these wild-card games are not much different from slot machines), and I celebrate with a healthy tip of the bottle. The overall quality of tequila in the world, I’m told, is declining. Tequila sales worldwide are up about 400 percent, and there just isn’t enough blue agave — the plant from which tequila is distilled — to go around. To complicate matters, blue agave is being attacked by a fungus, and growers are being pressured to slow harvesting because the plant is a principal food source for the rare Mexican long-tongued bat. Ismael — who, like the long-tongued bat, derives the majority of his evening sustenance from the blue agave — has been driven by higher prices to purchase lower and lower grades of tequila. Tonight he is drinking Casco Viejo Joven mixed with Fanta orange.
It’s 10 P.M. before Les finally arrives. “My radiator blew up,” he explains, “and I was getting twenty miles to the gallon . . . of water.” My enormous and amiable old friend is as furry white and full of shit as ever. We all wonder aloud why Les, an obese diabetic with cancer and circulatory problems, doesn’t abandon that small village and come back here, where people love him and there is an actual hospital, but he has a stubborn notion of freedom. He condemns our wild-card games, as always, and when it’s his turn to deal switches to seven-card stud. My winnings begin to dwindle.
Before I know it, it’s after midnight. I rush to the phone and call the wife, who is displeased. I try to explain: “Les just got here.”
I might as well have said, “The dog ate my homework.” Indignant, Cristina replies, “I think it’s better if you didn’t come home.”
Kicked out? I thought that happened only in comic strips and bad sitcoms. Perhaps I should rush back and beg forgiveness. But I’d like to stay a bit longer. I may never see Les or Ismael again. (As I write, Les has been in a Texas hospital bed for a month, unable to speak from a series of strokes, his most recent amputation refusing to heal.) On the other hand, if I stay, I may never see my wife again.
“All right,” I say. “I won’t come home.”
“Remember not to drink too much,” she reminds me, “and not to lose too much.”
I do both in spades and crawl into a sleeping bag on Ismael’s cold cement floor. As I drift off, it’s clear to me that the dissolution of marriage is natural. Motivational books, counselors (with their own exorbitant matrimonial problems), and talk-show hosts aside, how easy could it be to spend seven days a week amid the constant collision of contradictory wills?
In the morning I creak up from Ismael’s floor feeling desecrated and strangely detached. I think about taking the bus back to the States and reclaiming my old solitary life: getting a job as a short-order cook, renting a motel room by the week, looking out the window at the snow. I don’t recall my mother ever kicking my father out when I was a boy. I doubt very much that my mother-in-law ever kicked her husband out. I see now that my bringing Cristina to the U.S. to make all her dreams come true was a vain exercise for which I am now paying dearly. Ismael, sympathetic, brews me coffee. The quality of tequila is declining in Mexico. The hangover has not changed.
I walk the two miles home to clear my head. It is already too hot to wear my sweater. The women are out cleaning their cobbled walks, some with soap. Along the way I consider the concept of happiness. Except in the frantic delusion of youth, I’ve never been happy for long. I don’t believe in happiness any more than I believe in the luck conferred by a rabbit’s foot. Confusing a temporary emotional high produced by a series of random events for some sort of permanently achievable state is a formula for failure. It’s the Happiness Chasers who most often end up in rehab, or on mood medications, or marrying over and over, or moving from one beautiful clime to the next with their vast libraries of self-help books and suicide notes. And if you can’t make yourself happy, how in heaven’s name do you expect to please someone else?
I drag in at 9:30 that morning. Cristina is contrite. She wanted to call me back at Ismael’s house, she says, but didn’t have the number. I understand that she worries and gets unaccountably nervous and takes it out on the ones who love her. Today she’s extra jumpy because tomorrow we baptize the boy, and the bow tie and corsage for Tom’s special white suit have not been delivered yet. My mother-in-law, so kind and sweet and eager to repair the damage from her daughter’s rash act, has saved me breakfast. I wonder where my wife’s nervous genes come from. I think again of a bus headed north, subtitled movies on the TVs, curtains on the windows, and no one to please.
On Sunday there is a great commotion. Everyone dresses in their finest, and all the water in the twenty-gallon hot-water tank gets drained several times. My in-laws, three relatives, my wife, and I all head out on foot to the church. Sunday is the day the country people come into town to sell their goods: cheese, baseball caps, melons, machetes, sweets. The candy tanks are so full of honeybees that the vendedores open the lids to wave them away, and the bees move in thick clouds into the street. To keep from being stung, you must walk through them without sudden movements or fear.
On the way, I run into Antonio, the town schizophrenic. I’ve lived in many different places, and in every port I am assigned a schizophrenic, who refreshes my poetic side and reminds me how easy my life is.
Antonio takes his Clorazil and grinds miserably through the days. He lived and worked in LA for many years, and he likes to talk with the americanos. He’s been out of work since December, he tells me. The last time I saw him he was working as a custodian at the Hospital General. Before that he was an employee of the slaughterhouse at the edge of town, and before that a guard at the water-company building. He lives with his mom, whose legs and arms are sore and scabbed from falling. “She is getting too old,” he says. He doesn’t know what he will do when she dies. I nod sympathetically.
“What are you doing in Bedrock?” Antonio asks, referring to the fact that my wife’s hometown is all cement and rock, like the cartoon town where the Flintstones live.
“To baptize my boy,” I say, pointing ahead to the baptismal party, who are waiting patiently in their Sunday best across the street. “I’m married now.”
“Qué milagro,” he says: What a miracle. “You’re not a Catholic, eh?”
“No, but my wife and I often share the same God. Come along with us.”
“No thanks.” He has a shrinking grin and says cryptically, “I don’t want to die of old age.”
Everywhere I go in Mexico I’m ducking to keep from smacking my head on the top of a doorway. The ancient colonial buildings seem designed for people about five feet tall. There are also clotheslines strung everywhere like booby traps, and dangling cow carcasses, sausages, and piñatas. So it’s a relief to enter the church, which has commendably high ceilings and doors and is cool inside.
We sit through Mass. The sanctuary is standing room only, with the poor listening from the doorways. My male in-laws do not normally attend church, though the women of the family come as many as three times a week. Beto, a local man with Down syndrome, stands like an orchestra conductor at the head of the congregation, waving his “baton” — a section of mop handle. Beto will tell you when you are out of line. He stewards the passing of the collection plate and presides over the administration of the Eucharist. The padre, a broad, imperious man perched high above us all, does not dare interfere.
After the service, several families with young unbaptized children approach the altar. The padre seems vexed about something: Beto and his mop handle maybe? Or burning tequila farts? I don’t know. We’re one of seven sets of parents and relatives waiting to have children baptized. Most of the children are very small and lie quietly in their mothers’ arms. My half-Latino child isn’t yet two but looks three, thanks to his American chromosomes and diet.
We stand with the other families in a semicircle around the altar, the Virgin Mary thirty feet above our heads and the raised font before us, its water tranquil and green. The padre glides about in his robes interviewing the parents. “Demasiado grande,” he says when he sees Tom: He’s too big.
My father-in-law explains that the boy is from the United States.
“Mal hecho,” says the holy man: Badly done.
We shrug. What can we do, Your Excellency? We’ve come all this way, and my wife has spent a thousand pesos on an ice-cream-white suit and Pat Boone shoes (the bow tie and corsage never arrived) that will be used only once in the boy’s life.
Tom is a devil the whole while, writhing and howling. “El travieso,” everyone calls him: The mischievous boy, the little madman with lesional diaper rash and chronic cough bent on destroying every last geranium and gardenia in Mexico. He calms a bit for the second half of the ceremony, seeming to home in on the singsong of the sacrament. The padre, returning for a second round of anointment, chides him, “Lloraste mucho”: You cried a lot.
A baptism (or, to be precise, seven of them) takes longer than I thought. I wonder if this is what Antonio meant about dying of old age. But at last my son is blessed; he has passed through the door into the spiritual life, mediated ineluctably into grace.
When Cristina and I first wed, I did not want a child and kept ignoring my wife’s urgent requests for one. I was too old, impetuous, and unstable to be a good father, I told her. I was a poor role model and had no money. Secretly I felt a child would steal too much of my time. The bulk of my fears were ungrounded, though. When Tom came along, I was given not a rival but a friend, a raison d’être. And despite our minor bickering over whose turn it is to get up and change him, or whether he should be allowed to have a doughnut on the same day as French fries, or whether he will grow up to be a successful lawyer or an honest street sweeper, he is about the only thing holding Cristina and me together.
As we walk toward the exit, I take my own vow of consecration, without robes or Latin or symbolism, to do whatever I can to make Tom’s life worth living. I have seen enough divorces to know that most are entered into out of laziness, selfishness, immaturity, and pettiness, and I’m guilty on all four counts. I know that the greatest gift I can give my son is to stay together with his mother; to learn how to love and not to expect it; to make a sacred place, as my parents did for me, where he can go when all else is lost.
Tom, leaping down the aisle, is more impish than ever. He yanks a woman’s dress, picks up an old man’s hat. Everyone is patient with him, even cheerful. They laugh. This is the way it should be, they seem to say. The children scramble for the bolos, a handful of coins tossed ceremonially outside the church. The wives linger in the cool shade of the sanctum. The husbands, to a man, spring for the sun.