by Marianne Rogoff
They walked for days under dust-devils,
nights under whirlwinds
to get there.
~ Elsa Cross, Malinalco
Clay has strong opinions about everything. Americans: materialistic, all they care about is money. Colombians: dangerous. Artists: insane. Poets: not interested. Gays: unnatural. Death: no such thing.
He sits beside me in the jardin in Mexico because it’s sunny here. He is searching for light, to banish demons, doesn’t even want to say the name devil because that conjures it up, makes it too real. His body is large, American midwestern, substantial. His hands fold and unfold in his lap. I am visiting in this town alone, newlyunwed. I study Clay’s muscular forearms, attracted, shocked by every word that comes out of his mouth.
“My wife was beautiful but she’s a bitch. Everybody in Colombia’s the same way. I’d live there again, it’s violent but at least it’s real. You see that guy? Here every day, same time. Buys a cigarette for a peso, smokes half, saves the other half.”
Clay hates the people in San Miguel: everyone two-faced. Hates Minnesota: everyone out to get him. Wants to go back to South America, where time is more slow, more like it was a hundred years ago, people are more real, “more like you,” he says and slides the palms of his hands along the hardness of his legs.
I am the first real person he’s met in a long time.
“Everybody takes up too much space.”
“Doesn’t everybody get a portion?”
Clay looks at me.
“You’re the first American woman I’ve met down here who didn’t get up and leave after five minutes.”
Why don’t I?
I have nowhere to go, he is curiously compelling, I believe I can change him.
When we’re hungry Clay suggests we eat in the market, where it’s real cheap.
“Okay, take me someplace real cheap.”
We walk to the part of town where locals shop and do business, pass mangy dogs, ancient beggars, conflicting smells. The mercado overflows with fragrant pyramids of produce, hot crowds elbowing through tight space. They meet our eyes, smile or not, as we go by. Clay and I take stools at the counter of a torta stand where they handmake us beef sandwiches by floating hunks of meat in hot oil vats till it sizzles. They press, squeeze, and blend giant goblets of fruit juice: oranges, bananas, apples.
“Should I give you money?” I ask when he has paid the 50 pesos ($5) bill.
“When was the last time you had a job?” I ask.
“Should I ask where your money comes from?”
Full, we push back through the people until we’re outside, in another church plaza, on another bench, where we keep talking.
He is certain of everything but I dig at him until he admits he is “lost.”
He’s a “coward.”
He has “guilt” and tells me the story of losing his children, his ugly custody war with his Colombian wife, his father who used to beat up his mother, his long period in high school as a “Jesus freak,” the abandonment of that, then in despair, the prayer that’s led him back to God.
“Didn’t God make gays too?”
I turn evangelical, I want to save him.
“They’re the same as you and me, human.”
“It’s gays and immigrants that have ruined the U.S., which used to be a white paradise.”
“When was that?”
I extend the palm of my hand so a beggar can read the lines of my future.
Clay says beggars are drunks who just want to touch you.
Clay is obviously a lunatic, lost soul. While I am obviously sane. The madness of his thinking makes me feel enormously grounded, only temporarily derailed, connected to a meaningful life, compared to him. The toothless palm reader tracing his fingernails over the lines of my held-out hand confirms this. My lifeline is long except for a few cross-marks where my life could disappear. He shifts the palm out of the shadows, retraces the lines and says, it all depends on how the light hits you.
When I run into Clay the next day he kisses me on the cheek in greeting.
I go along as he directs me with a heavy palm on the small of my back. We board a crowded midday bus that says Botanical Gardens and Tuesday Market. We stand in the aisle, crowd farther back as new riders come on; we arrive, jostle, brush shoulders, make eye contact, on the narrow dirt path through rows of merchandise: cheap jeans, American t-shirts, plastic action figures, warriors, saints, heaps of red and green chili peppers, giant yellow papayas, popular Mexican music, axes, hammers, used shoes, blenders. Everyone wears these clothes, eats these fruits; dangling necklaces with crucified saviors they sweat and walk the dusty aisles smiling, carrying bags full of burdens.
Clay talks, I listen.
He wants cigarettes.
“They’re bad but I want them.”
He buys a pack but they don’t have matches and he refuses to buy a lighter since he has so many at home so he can’t smoke. I buy a lighter for 6 pesos and we smoke.
He’s been ill but you can’t trust doctors.
“Is there anyone you like?”
“Everyone you mention, you don’t like, or don’t trust, or hate: gays, doctors, Mexicans.”
“I like you.”
We start walking a long road, the way is clear for miles, it’s a beautiful day. I follow this stranger into the Mexican desert, freely, as if I have no choice, it’s the natural thing to do. We walk along the edges of cliffs. The sleeves of our shirts are close and I feel the magnetic attraction/repulsion of his biceps through the cloth. We’ll go round and enter from behind the Botanical Gardens so we won’t have to pay.
Is it safe?
We walk far. Clay fidgets his hands in his pockets and talks about his mental illness, the time he was hit on the head hard with a gun when he lived in Colombia, the time he fell down the stairs when he was six months old, pills he’s been given, “Prozac, Xanax, Lithium, none of it works.”
We are far off in a drought-stricken landscape.
All I have in my pockets is 200 pesos and the key to my hotel room.
The Botanical Gardens grow cactus but it is not the right time of year for flowers.
We pause on a high ledge above a huge dry riverbed.
“You believe in God?” Clay asks.
The air is quiet, without wind, hot with sunlight.
“Is there ever water in this river?” I ask.
We stand on a stone star-patterned viewpoint, and from here we can see how far we’ve come.
We talk about where heaven is.
How godlike we are.
“In spite of ourselves?”
“In the beginning….”
We wander through the barren gardens, keep walking.
Are we lost?
“Are we heading in the right direction?”
“Road’s bound to lead somewhere.”
I imagine everything’s all right, until we’re confronted by a locked gate, electric fence.
Are we trapped?
The illusion yields when Clay pushes open a camouflaged door.
“God-damned amazing, ain’t everything?”
We emerge into a new development of homes painted straw gold, glossy red, splendid blue, blooming pink bougainvillea climbing walls, terraced hillsides. We have come through wilderness into civilization.
We walk dirt roads for miles, then asphalt, cobblestones, and sidewalks. Clay points out the spires of the famous plaza cathedral. I recognize familiar landmarks now.
We have found our way.
He never tried to touch me.
I don’t have to be afraid of things unheard of in my tame imagination.
Back where we began he kisses me on the cheek and holds my shoulders, eyes connect, say no more, then we turn and disappear from each other at opposite corners of the plaza, as unanticipated rain starts to fall.
Marianne Rogoff is the author of the biography Silvie’s Life, which was optioned twice for movies and has just been translated into Portuguese by Gradiva, Lisbon. She has published numerous essays and stories, including “Raven,” selected for The Best Travel Writing 2006 (Travelers Tales’). She teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.