We are going downhill. Our sneakers scrape across the slick, narrow sidewalks. Christopher and I can barely fit side by side, which causes us to walk one a little ahead of the other, never quite in sync. Every few minutes he turns and says Sasha, almost like you’d call for a puppy or a kitten. I’m neither of those things, though. If I could choose, I’d be something more impressive. Something brave. Courageous. Undaunted.
A green taxi rumbles close to the sidewalk, and Christopher whips around, grabs my arm, and pulls me close to him. “Jesus,” he says, and I think that he really doesn’t have anything to do with it. “Sorry, I forgot to mention the taxis get really close to the curbs. You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “It wasn’t even that close to us.” I pat him on the back, since he seems like the one who needs a little reassurance. “We’re totally fine.”
We cross the street and approach the Parroquia, a large, pink cathedral at the head of the Jardin. I tilt my head and try to see the top. It’s dizzying. It reminds me of when I was thirteen and first saw the Statue of Liberty up close. My father had pointed up high and said, “Remember this, okay? Remember this when I show you Planet of the Apes.”
“A movie about monkeys?” I asked.
“Apes,” my father said. “Damn, dirty apes.” Then he shook his fist in the air, and even though I had no idea what he was talking about, I still giggled along with my mom. My father has that affect on people.
“Ever see Planet of the Apes?” I ask Christopher.
“The old one or the new one?”
“There’s only one.”
“They remade it.”
“That one doesn’t count.”
He puts his arm around me and follows my gaze to the tip-top of the Parroquia. “Do you see an ape up there or something?”
“Damn, dirty apes,” I say, raising my fist in the air.
Christopher says nothing, and it occurs to me that, in the three months that we’ve online dated, I’ve never once told him about my father.
I start walking, head still tilted at the cathedral, which causes me to bump into a woman in a bright red smock, her hands clutching strands of colorful, wooden beads. “Lo siento,” I say. It’s the only phrase I really know besides the obvious ones: hola, queso, adios. If I ever enter a room and say hello before stealing some cheese and then apologizing for it as I leave, I’ll be set. Otherwise, I am lost.
“Lo siento.” The woman returns my sentiment, even though she has absolutely no reason to apologize.
My father is sick in America. He’s restricted to a hospital bed that stays in my parents’ living room, in the same spot our Christmas tree has gone up every December for the thirty-three years of my life. He lies there, day and night, and watches nothing but infomercials and baseball. It’s been worse since you left, my mother’s email tells me. I read it outside Christopher’s apartment on my first morning in Mexico, while he is out getting breakfast at Monte Negro, the coffee shop down the street that’s owned by ex-pat New Yorkers. It’ll be soon, I read. We need you here, Sasha. Love, Mommy.
I’m not so sure, I want to write back. Maybe it’s better I’m not there. Isn’t it easier to avoid awkward goodbyes? An avocado falls from its tree and hits the chair behind me. I jump.
Part of me wants to write back and ask her why she’s caring for him when he’s the one who did this to himself, when we, my mother and I, were the ones who asked him a hundred times to stop smoking. I know, though, that this will make me seem heartless. I also know that this isn’t how I actually feel. But what I don’t know is how to write my mother back and tell her that it’s just easier for me to stay here, even if it makes it harder for her. I don’t have the words for it. Besides, I’ll be home before anything actually happens. It’s been worse for months. It won’t happen while I’m gone. I just needed a break.
“Bagels,” I hear from inside the house, and the voice is slightly muffled, which is enough to let me know that Christopher has already started eating. “Bagel bagel bagel bagel, bagel bagel bagel bagel, bagel bagel bagel bagel!”
He’s singing these words to the tune of “The Chicken Dance,” complete with accompanying claps. It’s like being at Oktoberfest. I’ve discovered this is something Christopher does, the making up of songs. He can turn absolutely anything into one. Over the phone, it was cute. It still is, really, but there are times when a simple sentence would suffice.
“Coming.” I read the last line again–we need you here–and the only answer I can come up with is a long, hard stare at the table. It’s a mosaic, red and green and blue and white tiles. There are cracks; things break. And the thing about things that break is that you rarely can’t tell. There will always be a scar.
Christopher and I met in a chat room for one of those online word games that you can play on your computer or your tablet or your smartphone, so that you never have to be alone with your own thoughts and make up your own words again, ever. I was desperately seeking a word using a Q, a K, and a V, and he was looking for a two-letter word that might feature a vowel. Any vowel, he typed, so I offered him a list of suggestions. In return, he offered me quacksalver.
Is that actually a word? I typed.
It means “quack doctor,” he wrote back. I swear.
So I looked it up and, sure enough, quacksalver was a word. I thanked him even though it was still a completely impractical choice, and we started chatting. One thing led to another and, next thing I knew, we were chatting with each other every night, often on the actual phone. He learned that I live in New Orleans, which led to multiple questions about flooding, which I answered with the least amount of attitude possible. I only used that other F-word once. Maybe twice. About him, I learned that he grew up in California and now lives in San Miguel, a town in central Mexico where the population of Americans outnumbers the population of actual Mexicans. He moved there after a bitter divorce, one that resulted from a year of marriage with a woman who he merely refers to as The Enforcer, which makes me envision someone more like The Rock than the five-foot blonde who really broke his heart. I told him that I didn’t have a nickname for my ex-fiancé, but now that I thought about it, Cold Fish would probably suffice.
After three months, he asked if I’d like to visit him in San Miguel, where he teaches English at an immersion school. When he asked, I considered telling him no for various reasons. For one, my father. For another, my sorry salary as a freelance copyeditor. For yet another, the fact that Christopher could be a serial-killing wordsmith. I presented this last option as my excuse.
“If it makes you feel better,” he said, “I don’t own anything sharper than a butter knife.”
“A butter knife could kill a person,” I pointed out.
“Should I be worried that you’re a serial killer?” he asked.
“If I were a serial killer,” I said, “I’d call myself The Spooner, because the spoon is the most innocuous of utensils.”
“What could you possibly do with a spoon?”
“Scoop eyes out of people’s sockets.”
I heard what sounded like pages flipping on the other side of the line. “Which dates work for you?”
A year before I met Christopher, my father took me to a bar to tell me he was dying. The Sox were beating the Yankees, and my father had lung cancer.
“Mom knows, yeah?” I traced a star with the condensation on my pint glass.
“You couldn’t tell us at the same time?”
“Oh, Sash,” he said, cutting off the final syllable like he always does when he’s being particularly affectionate. He said it as if he were about to say something else after it, something else that would hopefully make up for the terrible fact of what was happening. Instead, it ended with a rattling cough. He picked up the basket of onion rings and shook it towards me. I chose the fattest ring, dipped it in ranch, focused on annihilating it with my teeth. When I was eight, we learned all about taste buds, and how different tastes affect different parts of your mouth. I closed my eyes and tried to figure out which taste was going where.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“They get so close,” my father said. “Those cameras.”
He patted my shoulder. His hand was thick, strong. We used to put our hands together, compare the size. I used to think I’d catch up to him.
Now, in bed next to someone I barely know, lights off, the Parroquia’s bells ringing across town, I think about this man who told me his death sentence in a bar filled with the same smoke that was killing him. The same man who once worked two jobs to put his daughter through college. The man who wooed his wife in the ’70s by paying five visits a day to the bakery where she worked. “I gained twenty pounds in a week,” he used to say, which always made people laugh.
I think of the gift-wrap he handmade for Christmas, and how he always remembered that my favorite pattern was blue snowflakes on white parchment. I think about the trips I used to take with him on his shrimp boat, the way I used to squeal when he would playfully pretend he was throwing me overboard. I think about how his favorite holiday was the Fourth of July, and how he forced my mother and I to do the Pledge of Allegiance on the front lawn, in front of a giant flag. I think about how today was July 4th, and I’m spending it in a foreign bed in a country where red-white-and-blue are nothing but colors, and then I realize that I’m already thinking of my father in the past tense.
Christopher’s got this weird Doctor-Who-meets-Elvis-Costello thing happening, and I’m not exactly sure if that’s why he and I have yet to sleep together in the two days I’ve been here. When I first saw him, the look was working for me. Not every man can pull off a scarf, and even fewer can do so in the summer. Plus he has these thick-rimmed glasses that are this close to looking ridiculous on him except that they’re a little crooked, which makes it more endearing than hipster. Every now and then he pushes them up on his nose and tries to fix them, but that only makes it worse. Or better. It depends on the day for me.
Most people think that, when online daters meet, one of two things happen: either they don’t hit it off at all and the trip ends sourly, or they can’t keep their hands off of each other. What I’ve discovered is that Christopher and I are somewhere in the middle. We’re affectionate, and we kiss, but when we go to bed we just sort of snuggle until one of us–him–falls asleep, leaving the other–me–to ponder the fact that she is in a foreign country sleeping with a stranger who she barely knows and is still not, in any real way, actually sleeping with. Neither of us mentions it to the other, and I know that, when I return home and tell my friends about it, none of them will believe me. As it is, none of them agreed with my decision to leave. “Who goes to Mexico for a week to meet someone they don’t know,” they all asked, each in their own way. Most of them thought this was about the broken engagement. Only two mentioned the fact of my father.
On the third night, after too much tequila and a trip to the all-night taco cart, we return to Christopher’s apartment, where he switches on the television and grabs a pack of cookies labeled “Intenso!” A Spanish-dubbed episode of The Simpsons captures his attention. “Doh sounds the same in every language,” he says as I sit next to him. “You’d think there’d be an inflection, you know, like when dogs bark, but there isn’t. None at all. Just the same thing. Doh. Doh! Doh,” and he keep doing this for what is probably only a few seconds, but it seems way longer than that, and it is during this recitation of Dohs that it occurs to me that I don’t want this.
He slips his arm around me and pulls me slightly back, so that our heads are resting on the pile of pillows that, for reasons I have yet to inquire about, smell like cinnamon. It makes me think of a spray my father used to use to repel the neighborhood cats from pissing on our front porch. “Cats hate cinnamon,” he told me once as he sprayed the entire porch with what smelled like a stale Christmas cookie. “Natural feline repellent.”
Christopher’s pillows, I think to myself, are a natural female repellent, and as I wonder whether or not I should tell him this, save him the trouble of making the same mistake next time he has a girl in his apartment, he kisses me on the top of my head. Only it isn’t the way a boyfriend or a lover would do it. It’s almost fatherly. I have no way to know how to respond to this, so I offer a lame, tipsy, “Thank you.”
His lips move from the top of my head to my forehead, to my nose, and then, finally, to my lips. Yes, I think, now we are getting somewhere, because even though I don’t want him, I still want what he could potentially offer me, at least temporarily. I guess it makes me sound like a horrible person, but I’m pretty much through with being worried about perceptions. And so he lifts himself on top of me, and I’m just about to forget where I am and who I am with and just enjoy the moment when he abruptly stops what he’s doing, rolls off of me, and says, “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“It’s okay,” I say.
“God.” He raises his arms over his head and tucks the hands behind his neck. “What’s wrong with me?”
I can think of several things, but it’s all so completely confusing and pathetic that I find myself wanting to comfort him. I pat him awkwardly on the side of his leg.
“It’s okay,” I repeat.
Within seconds, he’s snuggled his head against my shoulder and fallen asleep, leaving me here, in this place where I have absolutely no business being. It becomes abundantly clear that Christopher is not the only pathetic one in this bed.
I don’t sleep. Instead, I think. Before I know it, the sun is creeping up on the other side of the window’s tall glass panes. My thoughts run together, thoughts of taco carts and cats and my father, the father who is dying in America while I selfishly watch this sky, expanding into color like melted crayons. The streets, narrow and thin as pencils. I start to wonder if I could slip into this life like an old sweater, if I could become this place as much as this sky, and these streets, and the avocado trees, green, that grow as though they’ll never die. I think and I think and I think, and yet, when it comes down to it, I don’t.
When I do allow myself to think about what I am doing, I am filled with self-loathing. Several times, I consider flying home early. But then I distract myself: walking through the art market, flipping through colorful, painted journals and parchments; buying roasted corn from the food carts and licking the chili powder from my fingers; taking walks through the city while Christopher is teaching, exploring gardens and antique shops and bookstores. I’ve been to Mexico before, but, like Christopher had said, this city is nothing like Mexico. Many people speak English, making my attempts at communicating easier. There are times, though, when I am at a complete loss for words, when the things I need to say remain lodged in my throat, unable to emerge.
On the fourth night, Christopher drags me into an Irish pub in the middle of Mexico and orders round after round of tequila and bulls’ blood, a tomato-based chaser that looks like its name and tastes like Bloody Mary. After two, I’m dizzy; after four, I’m invincible. We play drinking games, like taking shots whenever Bon Jovi plays on the jukebox. We get very drunk.
“My dad used to work for Bon Jovi,” he says at one point. It’s the first time either one of us has readily mentioned a parent. Something in my chest clenches. I think of my mother’s unanswered email. We need you here.
“What was he?” I asked. “Roadie?”
“I never really asked.” Christopher lifts his Cerveza to his lips then places it back on the bar. He eyes a couple of girls shimmying their hips to Shakira. The way his eyes swiftly move from hips to breasts to hips again reminds me of the way my father would pick out meat sometimes when we went to the butcher.
“What does your dad do?” Christopher asks, eyes back on me.
“He was a shrimper, mostly.”
“Oh.” Christopher looks at his beer. “God, Sash, I’m sorry,”
The way he shortens my name catches me off guard, but I shake it off. “Why are you apologizing? He liked his job. I used to go with him sometimes,” and after I say it I can almost hear the water lapping against the boat.
“No,” Christopher says, and now he looks confused. “I meant sorry about your dad.” I must look confused, too, because he says, “When you said he was a shrimper, I assumed that meant he passed.”
My face grows hot. “I said was?”
“I thought so. But maybe I misheard.”
“Whatever,” I say, waving a hand in the air. “It’s fine.”
“Well, now I feel like an ass.”
“I misspoke,” I say, but I know that’s not what really happened. I didn’t misspeak. I simply said what I’ve known will be true any moment now. What could be true, if I’m being honest with myself, right now.
“I have to go home,” I say.
“Okay.” He stands up. “Okay, yeah, we’ll go back.”
“No,” I say, “I mean home, home,” and suddenly something catches in my throat and my shoulders are shaking, and he is instantly hugging me, and I allow him to hold on to me, tight, as I use him for balance.
“It’s okay,” I say.
“No it isn’t,” and the surprise of Christopher actually calling me out on it propels me back into a normal state of gravity, one where I can stand without falling flat on my face. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “Do you want to talk about it? Come on, let’s go.”
And we do, but we don’t talk about it. When we enter the apartment, we watch more American cartoons dubbed in Spanish, and he doesn’t mention it again. Before we fall asleep, I tell him I’m cutting my trip short. Soon as I can find a flight. Without any questions, he says okay. What we don’t need to say is that we know this isn’t going to work. That this little experiment has been mostly a failure, no matter how much we each kind of wanted it to work out. Or maybe it’s not that we don’t need to. Maybe we just don’t know how.
I am alone the next morning, eating breakfast in the apartment while Christopher is at work, when I get the email.
This morning, my mother writes. Please come home. No Sasha. No Mommy. The email is dated the previous day.
The housekeeper shadows the doorway, bucket in one hand and sheets in the other. I shake my head. I don’t know how to say any of the words I need to say. She answers me with raised eyebrows and a confused smile.
“Pere,” I say. She shakes her head, and I realize I’m speaking French. “No, Padre,” I say. “Right? Padre? Father?”
She looks even more confused.
“I’m not calling you father,” I say, and this conversation would seem hilarious if it weren’t for the choking that’s happening in my throat right now. It’s not the language barrier anymore. Or maybe it is, just a different kind. I don’t know how to speak the language of someone fatherless.
“Lo siento,” I say. It’s all I know.