Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the Rocks

I like cocktails that involve milk. It's my thing; maybe I feel like I'm getting some nutrition out of it, not just empty calories. But then, I also just like milk. Mostly I prefer skim milk over ice with a generous splash of something sweet, Brendan's or creamy Tequila Rose or any brand of coffee liquor, like the stuff I picked up at Smith's Tuesday. I didn't pay attention to the brand, only to the price, which was right in the middle of the pack lining the top shelf. But when I got it home I glanced at the label, a great gaudy confection of fake, blocky Aztec symbols (it's made someplace in Missouri), and read, "Chapala Coffee Liquor." Chapala. Chapala. Where have I heard that before?

Bam. Memory assaults. A gauzy August day in the heart of Mexico, just south of Guadalajara. A body of water, or what's left of it. A vast, dry lake bed with a muddy pond at the center, shoeless boys playing fútbol in the acrid dust, creating a haze of steamy dirt. There's so much distance between the edge of the water and the stone walls around the covered picnic areas that it looks like the earth has been stretched, the bare dirt is a scar. The thatched roofs of the shelters are covered in bird droppings, but I don't see any birds. I'm shying away from the first cicadas I've ever seen. They leave when the smoke from the carne asada envelopes us.

I'm playing poker with round, blotchy Uncle Nacho (a diabetic doctor) and his equally rotund son, the only other person here who speaks English. I don't enjoy talking to him. I wish Betty's smiling husband, Cesar, was here. His English isn't nearly as good but he prefers to sketch for me bits of the conversations around us instead of talking about himself and his job making shoe soles at a factory, which is why he's not here. I love saying Betty's name. In Mexico it's "Bet-tee," not "Beddy" as it is here. She is busty and motherly and sisterly, with wide, smooth lips and white, round teeth. Her younger sister Amelia is an all-out tearing beauty, the kind of face on Mexican movie posters, long shiny black hair and liquid eyes framed in lush lashes and glossy, pouty lips. She does a lively dance in the courtyard in Guadalajara, in bright layered skirts, with a teacup balanced on her head, bouncing without spilling the cold tea.

After this we drive to San Blas, a little town way north of Puerto Vallarta, outside of Tepic, the capital of Nayarit. The Pacific is lukewarm here and we grill fish and vegetables on the beach, pick mangoes off trees. I sunburn, burn so badly my skin boils and Betty pats Maizena, corn starch, onto the worst places, my shoulders and chest. It's a glorious relief because nothing sticks to the inflamed, oozing skin. We stay with family in town, sleeping on comfortable mats in the living room. I wake up one morning to find a large iguana leering at me from under the couch. It's not a pet. The windows have no glass, no screens, no curtains. The entire rear wall of the house is constructed entirely of concrete blocks with club-shaped holes in them. The breezes in the kitchen are heavenly. Most of the cooking is done outside unless the meal doesn't require heat, like my first genuine ceviche. The fish is soaked in lemon juice for hours; the acid cooks it.

In the backyard is a pool, a concrete rectangle in the ground about four feet deep, maybe ten feet long and five feet wide. The surprisingly cold water (replenished from the garden hose) feels like heaven on my sunburn even though the smell from the pigs, wallowing just a few feet away in an enclosure in a little ravine, occasionally drifts through the strong citronella stink from eight candles burning in tin buckets. The pigs don't smell awful, just very much alive. I spend a lot of time in the unchlorinated pool with Betty's three small children: Cesar, Jr., eight, Armando, three, and Katia, two. Cesar conquers his fear of jumping into the water and then can do nothing else. The pool is under a huge tree with long leaves that occasionally fall into the water. Floating ants use them as rafts. We ferry them from side to side.

Nights are still hot, so we soak under the stars in the reeking candlelight, hearing the contented pigs. The stars are nautical stars, close and bright with no light from a city to dilute them. The kids run in and out with candy and sweet crackers filched from the little store at the front of the house. Trying to sleep, I listen to the hum of the cooler that holds carbonated Jarritos and non-alcoholic Sangria. I see them in the aisles at Smith's now and laugh. Sometimes I also browse the selection of candy from Mexico, hot chili-encrusted mango and watermelon and elotes lollipops (these are an acquired taste, but I love them, having lived on them in high school), Duvalin, a compartmented package of chocolate and vanilla cream to be eaten with a little plastic stick, de la Rosa, a crumbly peanut marzipan, plastic syringes filled with sour tamarind paste, sugar skulls with sequins for eyes. I still drink tea made from hibiscus flowers and Ibarra mexican hot chocolate.

Dad used to bring us cones of brown sugar from Tijuana before I was old enough to go there alone, coming back across the border in San Ysidro with a few bottles of Mexican vanilla for family in Wyoming, maybe a leather bag bartered for on
Avenida Revolución, American CDs bought cheap, Mom's prescription drugs concealed under my seat with whatever alcohol Lenny bought, or requested if he was too lazy to come along. Before I had my driver's license I went with Dad to pick up a car he was having painted to sell, and he had me drive around the block repeatedly (I counted ten second-floor dentists' offices) while he talked to the garage foreman in broken, completely unaccented Spanish, my father a blonde, blue-eyed gabacho towering over the little Mayan, who remained complacent and eventually did a very good job on the car for a good price. Dad had lived in Mexico City for a short time as a toddler; his stepfather (my beloved Grandpa Cooks, Merril Farnsworth) and mother were missionaries, I believe. I don't think he remembered that time fondly.

And I hardly remembered Chapala, until this bottle. I hardly remembered the fruit-strewn beach or taking speedboats up the river to see the what remained of the set of the movie "Cabeza de Vaca," tattered thatched huts on stilts, which I eventually saw on screen in the graphic and gory account of the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. I understood none of it (it was in Spanish with no subtitles), but it's ridiculously exciting to recognize a place you've been when watching a movie. What should have been more exciting was swimming at the mouth of the river, a jungle spring, in deep pools roped off with flimsy net to keep the crocodiles out. Eight feet long, they slithered onto the shore and boys poked them away with sticks. They made me think of snippets of poems.

I had forgotten the alligators, along with most of the rest of those long weeks in Mexico, the glass and metal artisans in Tlaquepaque or the blank evening after watching the agave harvest in quaint little Tequila (which is, of course, where it comes from, and yes, it was incredibly good, and yes, that really is a worm), or the picnic at the prison. A grassy field surrounded by razor wire (don't ask what we had to submit to just to get in) held covered picnic tables where we ate fried chicken and tamales, while the prisoner we were there to visit painstakingly embroidered my name in silver wire onto a black leather headband. He spelled it "Adriana." I never wore it. I came to hate it. But I did ask what the canvas tents set up all along the fence were for. "Visitas conyugales," said the prisoner, with a straight face. "Conjugal visits." I was sorry I asked.

That is not Mexico in a nutshell. That is a tiny area of Mexico in the summer of 2000, when Oscar's family pulled out all the stops to show me the best and worst of their country and themselves. There's a lot more to it. A wax museum. Waking up to the gas truck every morning ("El gaaaaaaaaaaas, HOOOOOOONK, bow, wow, wow") and heating water from the cistern to fill a bucket for a soaping-up of sticky skin. Avoiding the gigantic, reeking kettles of chicharonnes, ears and tails and unrecognizable pig parts bobbing in boiling oil, every Sunday on the way to market. The hamburger cart around the corner in the evenings. Acid rain. A fakir at a fair who was buried ten feet down, a pretty girl in a tight chamber staring up through a Plexiglass shaft to witness my horror. Refusing menudo. Accepting churros. Cheating at Buenas, a card game similar to Bingo, at which I was very good. Making tortillas. Giggling uncomfortably with Amelia at the bus stop, where men stared at us because she was so beautiful and I was a rubia, luz pelada. I learned to understand Spanish fluently. I rarely desired to speak it. I rarely remember these things. I think I got rid of the photos.

But I remember Chapala. And I like the coffee liquor.

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