It’s been two weeks since my last communiqué. I’m in a much better spot now, literally (we’re finally in our new room) and emotionally. But it hasn’t been easy, and I’ve come close to melting down on more than one occasion. Over the years I’ve discovered that my sense of self is mostly a matter of smoke and mirrors, an illusion generated and held together by a customary pattern of daily routines and filtered perceptions. Being me is a bit like being a tornado or a whirlpool, in that the pattern can’t be disrupted too much without flirting with total disintegration. As soon as the wind stops twisting or the water stops whirling, there’s nothing left but wind and water, and after a month of being unable to establish any semblance of a daily routine, I often feel more like a loose collection of elements than a stable person.
I had every expectation that these first few weeks in Mexico would nudge me out of my comfort zone, but I underestimated the power of language and culture. You don’t know what keeps you together until you fall apart. Molly has been out doing research interviews most days, leaving me to fend for myself for long stretches. However difficult, for the most part I can deal with the language barrier, the oppressive heat, not being able to eat what I want, being stared and pointed at—the whole enchilada—, but only when I can secure a little privacy, a place to which I can retreat and lick my wounds. A few nights ago, before we moved into the new room, I felt so powerless and out-of-sorts that I pretended to be sick so that I could lie in bed all day and withdraw into my carapace. When people passed through periodically to use the bathroom, I’d just close my eyes and pretend to be sleeping. There I was, a grown man, playing a kind of reverse peek-a-boo in order to make everyone disappear.
My last morning in the old room, I pulled a suitcase away from the wall and discovered a tarantula damn near the size of my hand. In the room. Where we had been sleeping. Of course I freaked out and killed it, nearly destroying a broom in the process. It was an encore performance that everyone seemed to enjoy thoroughly. Even I was all smiles, tickled by the thought that I would likely never set foot in that room again. As much as I had been looking forward to getting out of that bug trap, I’m sure our hosts were looking forward to getting back into it. Although they never complained (as far as I knew), I’m sure the five of them couldn’t have been too comfortable crammed together in the kids’ room. Some perspective: This house is much better than the rotten-wood shack they were living in before Jesús scored a job in the U.S. a few years back. He risked life and limb to sneak into South Carolina, where he found work as a fry cook at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. He used his KFC bounty for the construction of the house as it stands today. So, despite the tarantulas and the mouse shit in the sink, and the unrelenting, oppressive heat and humidity, it could be worse. We have electricity and running water (most days, anyway)—luxuries not afforded to everyone in the pueblo.
The new room is huge, about as big as their entire house. It’s actually fairly comfortable (aside from the heat and humidity) now that we have doors and a functioning bathroom. There is still some work that needs to be done, but as it stands it’s a major upgrade from the tarantula nest. Of course, the place is all theirs once we return to the U.S. In essence, in paying for construction of the room, we doubled the size of their home, and each appliance or piece of furniture we buy increases their stock in the long run. We were fortunate to find a little dorm-size fridge in a nearby town the other day. Today, supposedly, it’s to be delivered. I can hardly wait. Having a fridge will be almost as big a step toward sanity as having our own room, because it will enable us to start keeping our own stash of food. I wish I could’ve convinced Molly to let me carry it home on the bus. How the delivery guy is going to find our house – there are no addresses or street names in this pueblo – I have no idea. No importa!
Food and shelter: the foundation upon which stable selves rest. Piece by piece, things are starting to come together, although the new room hasn’t afforded me as much privacy as I had hoped for. Privacy just doesn’t seem to be highly valued here. For now, there is only a thin curtain covering the doorway between our room and the main house. Juana has a disturbing tendency to stand right behind the curtain to keep tabs on Molly and me as we go about our daily business. When I pay her notice she giggles and runs off as if she was a child caught peeping. The actual children come in and out of our room about a hundred times a day. In addition to the doorway connecting us to the house, we have two actual doors—one on the front side and one on the back side of the room, both of which are kept open during the day to promote air circulation. Even the neighborhood kids often wander in uninvited, or else they come right up to the large window by our bed and stare in at us as if we were an attraction at a zoo or museum. Yesterday, Molly and I took a bus to the city to get some more money. We locked the two doors to the outside, as we always do when we leave the house. When we returned, the whole family was in our room painting the walls. They assumed we would be pleasantly surprised and, of course, we acted accordingly. My internal reaction, however, was: “What the fuck! Why are they in our goddamn room?!”
It’s clear that Molly is getting increasingly disgusted with my complaints, as I’m getting more and more frustrated by her unwillingness to exercise even a modicum of assertiveness in relation to our hosts. This is certainly not going to be an extended honeymoon. When the lights go out, the conditions are hardly ripe for reconciliation and reconnection, as we find ourselves squished together on a tiny bed with springs poking us, mosquitoes biting us, the warm air baking us, and the thin curtain exposing us. During the day I’m doing my best to stay out of her way and to be as self-sufficient as possible, but the results have been disappointing to us both. We’ve spent a mere two nights in the new room though, and with the fridge on its way there’s every reason to remain hopeful. We’re going to make it through this.
Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom. In fact, I’ve spent most of my waking hours contentedly playing with the kids, especially the two boys. Molly and I have assigned Brady Bunch names to each member of the family, so that we can speak freely about them in English without perking their ears. The boys are Peter and Bobby. Their sister is Marsha, and their parents are, of course, Mike and Carol. Peter is 14, although he’s small and wiry enough to pass for 11. Bobby is 9, and both he and his brother have terrific senses of humor and they never tire of playing soccer in front of the house. I introduced them to the Hacky Sack and to the various ways my friends and I used to kick the thing around in the hallway of our high school. The boys and I can easily spend half the day playing soccer outside, then half the evening playing Hacky Sack in the house. The language of play and laughter is universal, and in that sense the lines of communication have been wide open. Marsha rarely plays with us, as she is usually helping her mother with chores. She is a very sweet, shy, 12 year old girl, and like her brothers she is always in good humor. I am a constant source of amusement for the three of them. Whenever I make a funny voice or show them some stupid trick I learned in kindergarten, they squeal with laughter and implore me to do it again and again. I must seem like a big, goofy, white-faced clown, like Ronald McDonald, sent here from America to make everyone fat with joy and goodwill. Not everyone is overjoyed, though. One of the neighborhood girls, an adorable little toddler, bursts into tears every time she lays eyes on me (much to everyone else’s amusement). She’s probably never seen a person with my features, so I may as well be a monster or circus freak.
It’s a strange sensation, I must admit, to stand out from the crowd, always feeling people’s eyes upon me. Back home I was more or less invisible—a kinda short, kinda average-looking white guy. Throw in the fact that I’ve always been an introvert, and I’ve effectively escaped notice my entire life. When I walk through the streets of the pueblo, however, all the heads turn my way. “What is he doing here?” is what I imagine most folks are thinking. I just keep smiling and saying “Buenos dias!” to everyone with whom I make eye contact. The adults seem wary, but most of the kids accept me immediately. Kids have appreciated me my whole life, probably because I’m playful and silly by nature. The kids here have already made a deep impression on me. They don’t seem troubled in the least by the limitations of life on the pueblo. Unlike children growing up in the U.S. these days, they roam the neighborhood and town streets without the overshadowing of hovering parents. Although their future prospects are undoubtedly limited by the harsh realities of poverty, they seem far more joyful and satisfied with what they have compared to their spoiled American counterparts.
The ceiling in the new room is made of two big sheets of corrugated metal held up in the center by a huge concrete beam. Lying on my back, I imagine a giant spine and rib cage, making the room the belly of a mammoth beast. I will stew here in this creature’s guts for hours and days if need be, however long it takes for the refrigerator delivery man to find “the house across from the little green store, down the dirt road about a mile from town.”
A moment ago a little developmentally-disabled boy called “Pollo” (which means “chicken” and is pronounced “Po-yo”) strolled into my room, smiled from ear to ear, and enthusiastically told me something that to my ears sounded like a seal barking. Pollo does this several times a day, and each time I respond with my biggest smile and an animated flurry of English that makes him laugh and bounce up and down gleefully. Then I spin him around, walk him out the door and say “Hasta luego, amigo!” Pollo is the only person around here I understand completely, and he may be the only one who truly understands me. And so I always pick him to be on my team when we play soccer with the boys. Yesterday I passed the ball to him when he was wide open and in position to easily score the game-winning goal. But instead of tapping the ball into the unguarded goal, he became so excited that he picked up the ball with his hands, started screaming “Goal!”, and jumped up and down like a jackhammer. Then he took off running toward his house—ball in hand—to proudly tell his Mom about his big moment! Peter, Bobby and I collapsed to the ground in tears we were laughing so hard. When Pollo returned, we patted him on the back and congratulated him as if he had just won the World Cup Final for Mexico.
It’s touching to see the neighborhood children go out of their way to include Pollo in all their activities, despite how truly annoying he can be. He may be different, but he belongs. As for me, I’m not sure where I belong. I just keep staring at the ceiling wondering when I’m going to feel like myself again, wondering when that fucking refrigerator is going to get here, and wondering how to say “swallowed up” in Spanish.