I am slouched in a Starbucks in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, but the only things here to remind me that I am not in America are:
A. The fact that I just had a very hard time ordering my latte.
B. The fact that I just paid a pretty, wide-eyed child $10 for five Chiclets.
C. The fact that a man just came over and asked me to put a peso in his can, and when I did, he slapped a Whinny-the-Pooh sticker directly on my right boob.
I am here because:
A. Starbucks is the only place in town with electrical outlets that jive with my computer cord.
B. I am scared shitless and need to be reminded that the whole wide world is not made up of serial killers bent on raping me for sport and harvesting my kidneys for profit.
Say what you will about Starbucks. Say that it is the face on the greedy corporate American monster gobbling up the whole world. Say that every time you arrive in Bangladesh or Madrid or Tel Aviv and see a Starbucks staring out at you from its place beside ancient ruins, it makes you want to fall to your knees and weep. Say that, frankly, Starbucks coffee stinks.
And I get you, I do. Theoretically. But honestly, for my part, today, Starbucks makes me feel safe. In fact, whenever I arrive in Bangladesh, or Madrid, or Tel Aviv, Starbucks always makes my disoriented, hapless American ass feel safe. So I hobble in and order a latte in broken sentences, to make me feel somehow connected to the continent that spawned me. This makes me part of the problem, I suppose, a cell in the great monster. If Starbucks is the modern equivalent of Roman bread and circuses, color me plied. Throw stones, if you must, at me and my Starbucks frequenting ways, but today, I need to feel safe. As I mentioned earlier, I am quite convinced the world is peopled with serial killers intent upon raping me and harvesting my kidneys.
The seeds of my terror were planted in Starbucks infested America. I was leaving for San Miguel the next day, and I spoke to my Mommy, who loves me very much and demonstrates her love in a variety of ways, but most often, by warning me of danger. Usually, the danger is nonexistent, but she still warns me. Last week, she warned me that I was going to get Hepatitis B because I got fake fingernails. (I don’t get the connection. When pressed, neither did she. But she was still quite adamant in her warning.) The reason I got fake fingernails is that, in addition to being a writer, I am also an actress, and as such, I am in a production in which I play a Marilyn Monroe-esqe diva of sorts. Now, blond-wigged and fake-nailed, I am heading to San Miguel to grace some four-hundred-year old building with a week of performances.
So, back in Starbucks-ville, I called my Mommy to say goodbye, and her final words to me were something along these lines: “Don’t forget the American women that are being raped and dismembered in Mexico.” My Mommy’s version of “Safe travels, Vaya con Dios, etc.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll remember,” I said. And packed my stilettos and headed out to play a diva on some San Miguel stage.
All went beautifully the morning of my travels. From Albuquerque, I flew, hassle free, into Houston and connected to a plane that was to take me to Leon, where my director was going to meet me with a car to drive me to our lodgings in nearby San Miguel. Easy cheesy, right? Even if I had never been to San Miguel before, it would have been a fool proof travel plan. And I had been to San Miguel. I had spent a beautiful month in that city, wandering the cobblestone streets, basking in the morning sun in the jardin, buying handmade dolls and Chiclets and flowers from beautiful women in Kool-Aid colored shawls. I knew these streets. They were mine. As I said, a fool proof plan.
Whoever made up the phrase “fool proof plan” did not take me into account. No plan is proofed enough for this fool. This fool somehow managed to get on the wrong plane, undetected. And landed in a completely unfamiliar locale and thought only this: “Wow, they must have redone the airport.” And sat there outside customs blithely reading a book, waiting for her director, while a cluster of Mexican airport officials ogled her. This fool tried to act tough, so as to dissuade the Mexican men from their ogling, only this fool is kinda crappy at acting tough, as she is usually bumbling around, bumping into large, valuable pottery artifacts and repeating, ad nauseum, her mantra, which is, “Habla da English?” (Just like that.) Because even though this fool has a few years of Spanish classes under her belt, she has retained a vocabulary of maybe a hundred words and a few useful phrases. (“Donde esta el bano? Un tequila por favor? Yo quiero un botella de agua frio. Tu gato es muy bonita. Cuanto es?)
It was only after my director failed to arrive that I began to suspect something was desperately wrong. I looked out the window and saw lots of palm trees. I didn’t remember seeing lots of palm trees in Leon. I noticed that the airport restaurant was much, much larger than it had once been, and was on the opposite side of the building. They had added wireless internet since my last visit, if the signs were to be believed, though I couldn’t access it because I had no adaptor for my computer plug. They had moved the bank machine. Also, the bathrooms were much cleaner. Oh no. A snake of terror coiled around my heart and squeezed. I was in the wrong city.
When a girl realizes she is in a foreign country alone and does not speak the language and does not know where she is, she gathers her wits. Well, first, she hunkers down behind a potted fern and weeps. Then, she gathers her wits. Which are easy to gather, because there aren’t really many of those wit things running around in said girl’s head. (Obviously. She got on the wrong plane to a foreign country.) The girl whispers things to herself, bits of wisdom. “What would Jesus do? One two three four, I declare a thumb war. I before E except after C, and when sounded like AY as in NEIGHBOR and WEIGH.”
Then she takes stock of her resources. What do I have that can help me in this situation? Language skills are not on that list. Nor are navigational skills. Money? Not much. Friends? Nada. Cell phone? No signal. Internet? No plug. A girl goes down here list of assets, and finally, she concludes, I have boobs. This is so un-feminist of her, she knows, but her mother’s warning is ringing in her ears, and it is already three in the afternoon, and she has to get to her lodgings before nightfall, or she will be raped and hacked apart. Also, she has a show to do tomorrow, and if she doesn’t get there, even if the serial killers don’t harvest her kidneys, her director will.
So the girl goes into the bathroom and plumps up her boobs and applies some lipstick and sashays back out of the restroom, on over to the Mexican airport officials who have been ogling her. She whispers, sultrily, using all of the Marilyn Monroe-esque know-how she has garnered during her acting career, “Habla da English?” Then she trips over a pottery artifact.
The officials are all over it. They help her up and restore the artifact to its rightful place. They say, “No, no, no English,” but they take the girl by the hand and across the airport to a corpulent airport official who does, in fact, habla da English. She looks like a movies star with a bunch of body guards until she trips over another artifact. Then she just looks like a witless fool. Which, we have already established, she is.
She explains her plight to the English speaking official, and he explains it to the non-English speaking entourage, and they all nod knowingly and chatter amongst themselves, after which take the girl back into their office. Oh crap, now they are going to rape me and dismember me, she thinks. But they don’t. Instead, they spend the next half hour finding the girl the quickest route from Ixtapa (which is where she is, it turns out) to San Miguel. This involves a cab ride to a bus depot, a four hour bus ride to a city called Morelia, and then another two hour bus ride to San Miguel. Airport officials beg the witless girl to spend the night. The girl pictures being hacked apart by said airport officials, panics, apologizes, thanks them profusely (“Gracias, lo siento,” is one of her phrases), and runs to a waiting cab, which befuddled airport officials order to take girl to bus depot.
This boob thing is working out, so girl thinks she will use it again at the bus depot. But the bus depot holds no ogling officials, only flies, Fanta dealers, and females. The females are not amused by the girl’s antics. No, they are not, but somehow, she manages to convey she wants to go to Morelio. “Un boleta a Morelio por favor.” She says this with a terrible accent and great gusto, only her request is greeted with inquiries, rapidly phrased Spanish questions which the girl doesn’t understand. The ticket selling females do not habla da English. Worse, they recognize the witless girl for what she is. Suddenly, boobs are useless weapons. The witless girl has been disarmed. Still, even though the ticket selling females mock the girl in angry Spanish, they sell her a ticket.
She slumps into the waiting room, which smells slightly of urine and boasts a small television, playing Mexican soap operas. The girl struggles to understand the dialogue, trying to hone her language skills for the bus ride ahead. She pictures boarding a rattle trap van held together with bailing wire. She pictures being approached by a serial killer with a scalpel in his holster. (Mexican serial killers wear holsters.) She pictures pleading for her life. What would she say? She watches the soap opera intently. “No, senior! No, no!” That’s it. She has her line. Any actress knows that getting your lines down is just the beginning. After that, it’s all in the delivery. Should she say, “No, senior!” or “No, senior!” Probably the second one. It will emphasize the killer’s humanity. Make him think twice before her takes her kidneys. It will remind the girl’s killer she is more than a host for organs. She is a human being, damn it! He will fall to his knees, weeping. “Lo siento!” he will scream. “Lo siento!”
Luckily, when the witless girl boards two wrong buses, the ticket takers are men, who do not habla da English but are clearly moved by her witlessness and her boobs. They look at her with pity, like she is a brain damaged child, and help her off the wrong buses, and finally, onto the right one. The bus is not what the girl expected. It is air conditioned and comfortable, and she gets a whole row to herself. And a free Fanta. Score!
As the bus lurches off for Morelia, the girl drinks her delicious Fanta and starts to think of this whole thing as adventure. She listens to “Born to Run” on her I-Pod while watching Mexico slither by outside her window like a gorgeous green snake. She sees thick climbing vines and pink flowers with faces as big as her own. She watches soldiers sipping Coca Colas under thatched roofs and goats eating tires inside brightly painted yards. She smiles at a raisin faced old woman leading a plump, grape faced girl by the hand along a dusty path. She waves at taco vendors dancing to their radios. One of them waves back at her, and she laughs, listening now to Roger Clyne’s song, “I Speak Your Language.” These people may not understand a word she says, but they understand her. At least the men do. They speak the universal language of boobs.
All is going well. At this rate, the girl will be in Morelio in no time. When she gets there, she will buy another ticket and board another air conditioned bus to San Miguel. It’s all so easy. She should do this more often, and look, there is a red bridge over glassy water with the sun setting behind it. How glorious! Look at the orange peel colored sunset being reflected back to the sky. The girl starts to scribble in her notepad, which she carries in her pocket for just such moments of inspiration. “The sky is looking in a mirror,” she writes. “The sky—“
Screech. The bus lurches to a halt. As her mother instructed, the girl remembers the American women that are being raped and dismembered. The girl imagines bandits boarding the bus and zips up her coat. The girl wipes off her lipstick and pulls her hair into a tight ponytail. The girl slumps over, puffs out her stomach, and tries to look as un-boobalicious as humanly possible. She can’t speak to the bandits with words, but she can speak to them with her eyes. “I do not want to be raped and harvested!” she wills her eyes to scream. “I am a mother, for God’s sake!” Yo means I. Madre is mother. She can even say this in Spanish. “No, senior. Yo madre!” Which may be taken to mean something like, “Your momma!” which could further enrage the killer, but she will have to take her chances.
The bus driver comes back and fires off something, very quickly, in Spanish. The girl picks up a few words. Buenos dias. Lo siento. Bus. Luggage. Then a passenger starts yelling. He says something about mi familia. Barely able to breathe, the trembling girl tries to use these clues to understand the content of the conversation. She comes up with this.
BUS DRIVER: Buenos dias. I am sorry to inform you that the bus has been taken by serial killing bandits who are now rifling through your luggage, looking for valuables. Soon, they will board the bus, rape all the American women, dismember them, and harvest their organs.
PASSENGER: That boobalicious woman is obviously an American! Take her and leave my family!
The girl begins to weep. She wants to ask if any of the other passengers habla da English and can translate the bus driver’s announcement, but she knows the killers are targeting Americans and doesn’t want to give herself away. The bus sits for an hour. The passenger gets off the bus, ostensibly to beg the bandits for mercy for his wife and children. He comes back smelling like smoke. So they must be setting the luggage on fire now. It’s only a matter of time. “Born to Run” is little comfort. “I Speak Your Language” is even less. Girl listens to another Clyne song. “Mercy, mercy, mercy may I be,” he says. She thinks she will focus on the lines of this song as her organs are harvested. Maybe it is a parting gift from God, like that scene in Braveheart when Mel Gibson is being disemboweled and looks into the eyes of the smiling little boy for comfort. The girl looks out the window and whispers a prayer. To God or her dead daddy. Maybe to both of them. “Daddy, get me to San Miguel in one piece.”
The bus lurches, then moves forward. The passengers make cheering noises. The girl weeps again, with relief this time. It is dark now. The air conditioning on the bus works, but the lights do not. The girl sits in her seat and prays in the blackness, fervently. The other passengers fall asleep, but she will not be lulled into a false sense of security. She will not rest.
It turns out the ogling men in the Ixtapa airport were wrong. With the bandit debacle, the bus ride takes six hours, give or take. By the time the bus pulls into Morelia, a lemon wedge moon is hanging in the sky, and the girl wishes she had toothpicks with which to prop her eyelids open. She is weary, but she cannot sleep, not until she is safely tucked away in her director approved bed in San Miguel, protected from the probing scalpels of organ harvesters. She hobbles off the bus, retrieves her luggage (which is mercifully unburned), and staggers into the Morelia bus depot. It is peopled by female ticket sellers, which doesn’t make much of a difference at this point, because the girl is slightly stinky and anything but boobalicious. She manages to ask for a ticket to San Miguel de Allende, and the woman behind the counter rattles off a bunch of words, one of which the girl understands. Manana. Tomorrow.
The girl chokes back a sob. She cannot, cannot sleep here alone in this strange city. She pictures all those CSI episodes where people are hacked apart in hotel rooms. Her mother’s warning merges with the images.
Crying again, she stumbles to a taxi stand. “Cuanto es un taxi a San Miguel de Allende?” she manages, wiping tears and snot away with the backs of her knuckles. The man behind the taxi stand laughs, but another man, a driver, doesn’t. He is old and stooped and he reminds the girl of her father, of what he might look like now had he lived into old age. The driver looks at the girl, not unkindly, and says, “You safe?” She shrugs. “Si.”
“Eight hundred pesos,” he says, which is eighty dollars for a two hour ride. The girl knows the man is saving her ass, and she wants to kiss him. “Gracias,” she whispers, in a voice completely unsultry, no trace of Marilyn Monroe. “Gracias, senior. Gracias.” She climbs into the cab, and as the driver pulls into the street, the girl sees on a cinderblock wall the word “angel” scrawled in red ink. And it may the unfamiliar Mexico air and exhaustion going to her head, but the girl wonders if God is trying to tell her something.
Her angel tries to talk to her as he drives, though between the two of them, the only word they seem to have in common is “agua.” Once the angel realizes this, every time he sees water, he points to it and kindly says, “Agua! Bonita!”
“Si,” says the girl. “Agua es muy bonita.” And the angel smiles.
And so they go on like that, commenting enthusiastically on the beauty of the water. The girl notices that the air smells like smoke, and in the distance, she notices the orange eyes of fires burning holes in the night. She wants to ask her angel what these fires are for, but she can’t find the words. The girl finally sleeps, and three hours later, she wakes up to the sound of her angel’s voice.
“See, lady? San Miguel de Allende.”
When she opens her eyes, she sees the cobblestone streets lined with brightly painted doors, and she warms at the thought that she knows what is behind some of those doors. Some of the men and women sleeping behind those doors would recognize her face if they saw it. They might even say her name. Tawni.
Though her terror still lingers like a coiled snake in her belly, Tawni understands the proverbial impulse to kiss the ground, because this is the safest she has felt in many hours. These streets are hers, at least compared to the streets she has been bumping along all day. The angel finds another cabbie and pays him to lead the way to Tawni’s casa, the address for which she has scrawled on a bit of paper. The angel carries her luggage to the door and when she offers to tip him, he runs his fingers through his thinning gray hair and shakes his head, smiling.
“Gracias, senior,” Tawni calls to his retreating back. “Tu es un angel.” Which she knows is wrong. But suddenly, it doesn’t matter if her Spanish is bad or good. It just matters that she says what she needs to say.
“De nada,” calls the angel.
“It’s not nothing. It’s everything,” Tawni wants to tell him, but by the time she finds the words, he has driven off under the lemon-wedge moon.