—Xavier Villaurutia, Nostalgia for Death
I was attempting to create a version of a schedule while I was here because back home I led a life of routines. I kept busy writing but the unfamiliar freedom of being away left me wandering streets or sitting in restaurants at odd times of day. Gradually I learned the pace of the place: write early, Bellas Artes for cappucino around 10, walk the hills, visit in the jardinaround noon, back to Posada de las Monjas for siesta: nap or read on the balcony, meet the neighbors, until at least past 7. Then slowly the nighttime streets of the cobblestone town come to life. Everyone gathers at the jardin, walking through the plaza square or sitting on benches to watch people go by and listen to the grackles chatter. College students were here studying Spanish, art, or Mexican culture. Worldly retired Americans and Canadians came to escape winter or empty love lives, to stretch dollars, or possibly, become someone else once more. In their midst: me at midlife, newlyunwed, traveling alone, for one week.
The night I met David and Richie I had been to a poetry reading (per schedule), was invited to join the poets for dinner but couldn’t handle the group dynamics and slipped away to Tio Lucas. I sat at a table in the bar where David and Ritchie were waiting to be called for dinner and they didn’t notice me. They were here for Raven and each other, plus (I later learned) they had wives at home and were practicing being faithful men, after many lost marriages and failed relationships.
They paused from their dialog and found me there, “trying not to eavesdrop.”
“New Jersey? I’m from New York!”
“Jews from New York? I married a Jew from Long Island!”
“You dance salsa? Let’s go dancing!”
We had all been at the same Ravi Shankar/George Harrison concert at Madison Square Garden in the ’70s. It was like I’d known them for years! I didn’t know which one to like more. Then their table was called and they politely went off to eat. But Richie returned to invite me to join them, and so I did.
We discussed the menu, jazz, San Miguel, Raven…
“Where’d he get the name?”
“Not from his mother.”
“Raven was the first Green Party mayor of Point Arena.”
“I was there once…where is it?”
“Raven’s a writer, wild man, activist….”
“…who moved to Mexico to die.”
They reminisced about women all three of them had dated, told me all about their ex and current wives and I described Dearly Beloved’s “mental-pause” so we started analyzing the midlife crisis.
One said it’s real; the other, not.
David called it “road not taken.”
Richie blamed “insatiable desire.”
I asked, “forbidden fruit?”
David said, “Jung’s shadow….”
I told the story of Ricardo, the married Mexican Texan I’d met two nights before. “He’s 40 years old, has a two-year-old, a pregnant wife, and came knocking on my door at midnight, begging: abre la puerta. Good thing, no is the same word in English and Spanish.”
After ceviche, more margaritas, arroz con pollo, carne y verduras, huitlacochtle (rich, dark, tasty fungus/mushrooms), and one shared helado dessert we agreed to meet in the morning for cappucino, at Bellas Artes, at 10.
The whole next day we walked the cobblestones, up and down steep
hills and stairs, studying the map and views, a museum, las tiendas, eating, laughing, serious banter. We kept meeting every day, falling in love with the place and each other.
On the fifth day Richie had to drive Raven to the hospital. David and I sat out the afternoon and twilight on my hotel rooftop, chatting, sipping damiana, and smoking, close to an increasingly starlit sky, listening to music all over town, church bells, dogs barking, dialogs on streets below, hotel guests coming and going. Inside, we talked on opposite twin beds until three in the morning. Raven wasn’t the only one dying, it was happening everywhere, just not to us, not that night, and we were sweetly conscious of our healthy bodies, gratitude and guilty indulgence our aphrodisiac.
The air was charged with talk of death and all the days and hours of languorous, revealing, verbal intercourse. Tonight we had covered (among other things) erotic poetry, the clitoris, David’s first fumbling experience with his college girlfriend, how it “didn’t work” and he went to the library to study up and they took their time and talked themselves through it until they were mutually satisfied.
“I now consider myself a pretty good lover,” he admitted, and described his wife’s body to me. “She’s not the type of woman I usually go for. They’d be more like you.”
I contained my longing, as he debated his “moral dilemma.”
With no more talk he moved us into a standing-up, very tentative hug-then-kiss where our bodies sensed each other, what it would be like, and our lips reached and searched and also held back before he pulled away, then I said, “I’ll step back and make it easy for you to leave, how’s that?”
I took the step. And he left.
I went to bed with our desire: desire alone, pleasing, mutual, alive.
On my last afternoon in town I finally met Raven. The four of us found an outdoor table at the edge of the jardin and watched the people pass.
Richie said, “Ever heard the saying, ‘man with many hats’?” and pointed to a young Mexican selling straw hats, stacked on top of his head, reaching all the way to the sky. A marionette clown wheeled by on his little bicycle, mariachi drifted around a corner, bells clanged forth from the Parroquia tower, sun rays penetrated wispy clouds like spread fingers from divine hands.
Throat cancer made Raven’s voice quiet, his head bowed into his neck as if surgery had reduced the distance or his ability to stretch up. David, Richie, and I ordered beer; Raven couldn’t join in because he must consume everything through a tube. But he begged to taste and did so with a spoon then dribbled and reached for a napkin to wipe his mouth. When he spoke he was the local, and we leaned towards him to hear him better, the knowledgeable one with wisdom at hand, even as his body was slowly, as he spoke, deserting him. “Enjoy this,” he was saying.
The old hideous guitar man strolled by our table and handed us a card with song titles: Cielito Lindo, La Bamba, Guantanamera, and so forth. I handed the card to Raven: “You choose.” But he couldn’t seem to focus on the handprinted words. All during our time together I watched him struggle to remain in the world with us, as he contemplated leaving it, still in his body, coughing, dribbling, uncomfortable in his posture. He knew he was dying, while David, Richie, and I fancied ourselves in the middle of life, and savored the scene, the sun, cerveza, good company, blissful in our bodies’ passions, hungers, and thirsts. So we were able to pay attention to the ugly old troubadour as he sang through his stained, crumbling teeth:
que bonito el cielo
que bonita la luz
que bonito es el amor.
Marianne Rogoff wrote Silvie’s Life (Zenobia Press, Berkeley), which was optioned twice, by Village Roadshow and Paramount Pictures. She has won two Marin Arts Council fiction grants, published numerous short stories and essays, and writes book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. She teaches creative writing and literature at California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco. “Raven” was excerpted from her book NewlyUNwed.
About Editors’ Choice:
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