Our Second Journey into Mexico
Sidewalks along narrow, cobblestone streets were about eighteen inches wide, not always level with each other nor flat, nor void of obstacles solidly embedded in ancient tannish-yellow mortar and discarded chewing gum stains now black. Moving from uneven sidewalks to a cobblestoned street, I tripped among smooth river rocks as we walked by little girls in pretty white dresses, or young señoritas walking toward us, or anyone else female or male who looked older or elderly coming toward us just as a point of courtesy. It was a matter of silent almost unnecessary public respect. At a distance these acts might be silently anticipated, but I could also detect they were quietly acknowledged by a knowing eyebrow or a restrained smile. We were norteamericanos; surely our behaviors were being observed as the international guests we were, and also possibly as friendly humans who understand and respect the fundamental experiences of living in the world even though our languages were not the same.
We dodged discarded corrugated boxes; we avoided running into little wooden posts and metal studs barely emerging underfoot, narrowly avoiding some soft odoriferous substances. We were in the street as often as on the sidewalk. Up close and participating with locals and visitors, it was neatly predictable and noticeably friendlier than a hotel lobby, a day for casual walking, making eye contact, and contemplating. Everyone else certainly seemed to agree even though the most we would ever actually hear was “buenas tardes” again and again just above a whisper, yet when uttered it was with a small but genuinely gentle smile. And we responded in kind.
I fretted we might appear conspicuous or intense or somehow too American. But Carol was more accurate observing this was how everybody probably greeted everybody else. Yet I’d notice, too, how this person or that person deferred to us the same way; could it be because we were indeed American, or the white hair above my ears? Respecting what or who we might encounter was just as much part of the quaintness of Mexican towns as cobblestone tripping was, I supposed.
Carol thought I evaluated these observations way too much, and she was usually right about such things because I did tend to over-scrutinize them. Visitors yes, tourists not. So, here we were in the village of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, high in the hills with a year-round temperate climate as well as a historically significant location. My immediate appraisal suggested correlation with the ambience of familiar-to-me Santa Fe, New Mexico.
● ● ●
We’d been around town a few times already, had hired a driver who doubled as a tour guide taking us to towns near San Miguel, and villages where we bought truly-local pottery, still warm fresh from the kiln. The evening prior while eating at an upscale local restaurant, at the next table was author, Tony Cohan, who wrote On Mexican Time, the book about living in San Miguel de Allende I had coincidentally just finished reading, the advance book I read that led to picking this as a good place to explore. The driver took us to Guanajuato, a beautiful city; maybe we’ll visit there as non-tourists next time.
This particular afternoon was unsurprisingly serene. Comfortable with my own well-practiced visitor’s smile and well-rehearsed sureness of step, I pledged not to look like a tourist. As I practiced nonchalance, Carol would respond with “how in the world would we not look like tourists?” Well, at least I didn’t have maps stuffed in back pockets or a camera around my neck; that was something! Today’s impromptu route was downhill from the church on the central plaza in San Miguel. Like Ajijic, this was a place where numerous ex-pat norteamericanos lived. Shadows from one side of this slightly-wider-than-an-alley street were creeping up stucco walls on the other as siesta-time embraced both traffic and walkers to a crawl.
I tried making sure my reactions were actually unnoticeable to locals. I smiled when I responded with my own “buenas tardes” (good afternoon) to them being careful to pronounce my Spanish exactly as I heard them so many times before. I may have been practicing nonchalance too much, confident in a desire to fit in even if we were norteamericanos. But still no one seemed to pay much attention to us at least that I could notice. After all, there were many norteamericanos here.
Everything was just right for an afternoon walk. I think Carol was observing the architecture of churches, looking into windows or at what street vendors were selling, or all those pretty little girls in their white communion dresses. A blue-jeaned teenaged girl swept some dirt and gum wrappers off the sidewalk in front of a store. Slowing our pace to make sure we didn’t interrupt her job, I tripped once again from a slightly higher cobblestone blocking my size 14s, yet she never looked away from her work, completely focused on brooming.
San Miguel wasn’t exactly a resort town nor was this a cobblestone street where many tourists might even have chosen to walk, it was more an alley. We were exploring places where other norteamericanos might not elect to go but still feel safe, and we judged this area delightfully indigenous, at least más Mexicano and therefore más auténtico than those places having English subtitles below the Spanish on their window signs. Besides, I now had real pesos in my pocket. So, I honestly believed I knew how not to look too touristy despite Carol’s resignation to how ultra-American our clothes surely must have made us seem.
● ● ●
Lure of An Old Alley Bar
More than seven or eight blocks off the plaza from el centro (downtown) with late afternoon sunshine blinking into our eyes between old buildings, we happened by a little bar adjoining a two story hotel that looked historically interesting in architecture as well as with its on-the-street character: old wavy-glass windows, peeling paint and weathered gray-wood doors. Nothing else much along this almost-an-alley street had similarly captured our eyes. Both old double doors were wide open inviting us in; that is, open for business and piquing our joint curiosity. We hopped up one step to get a better look, and rubber-necked a discreet examination through the doorway.
Everything within eyeshot, spotlighted by a now pointed afternoon sun at our backs, looked like it was supposed to be there. Pausing, we took it all in as being not quite predictable but eccentric, spotting long cobwebs on the doorframe just inside. Looking into the dirty little window, Carol, still outside, observed how the place looked semi-abandoned, well-used. She hopped up the second concrete step behind me, hesitated, and we both poked heads further rather tentatively through the shaded entrance. Making a unspoken mutual commitment, we penetrated the timeworn darkness we faced. Our eyes didn’t immediately cooperate …darkness slowly dissolved into distinct, intriguing images.
Moving within shadows, our silhouettes’ back to the sun, what we could see in the poorly lit room was neat, swept clean, with a half-dozen empty tables with chairs. It smelled like wet straw and oily rags, but our noses acclimated, muy auténtico indeed; this was no Montana bar! We were alone sallying up to an ancient, dark-wood counter that surely witnessed countless elbows and thousands of spilled cervezas over the last hundred years. As vision came into focus, the high-ceilinged room was supported by angular, blackened floor-to-ceiling posts and far too many too-little framed pictures on the walls. Uneven black tin ceiling panels assumed a well-worn, ill-fitting look. Ornate panels begrimed by years of cigarette smoke and oxidizing metal reflecting craftsmanship and ornate styles from a leathery bygone era.
Two cavalier dirty-white shirted guys lounged in the back corner slouching back, quietly smiling inside a private conversation. The heavy-set animated, mustachioed fellow was whispering and gesticulating a tale that captured the other, who, I thought, seemed too little and too young to drink legally had it been in a bar at home. While religiously drawn toward his older maestro, the boy repetitiously swished the beer head inside his own clutched brown-bottled drink before pouring into his glass an inch at a time. We obviously entered unnoticed by these guys. No bartender in sight.
Sitting on the edge of our stools not knowing if we should make noise, I glanced back at the older guy in the corner. He reminded me of my preconception of Pancho Villa. Pancho silently bent back and forth in his chair restraining quiet laughter that jiggled his belly as he played with his elongated black moustache. After each animated hand-gesture, Pancho’s prominent paunch waggled with his stretched gesticulations despite feigned self-control. Occasionally pausing for a reaction from his dutiful wide-eyed listener, he continued with rolling eyes and almost audible hands to tell what must have been another wondrous tale.
They looked like common workers, dusty, dirty jeans, old once-white shirts, and with almost empty glasses. In high spirits, neither made any actually audible sounds. This restrained, personal entertainment gave very few cues about the tale told, but the inimitable image of Pancho with lieutenant only needed an ammunition sash, a fat-brimmed sombrero, and maybe a horse to make it south-of-the-border authentic.
Wanting to be polite I turned and looked into the mirror behind the bar. Pancho couldn’t be clearly seen in the mirror, more from darkness and age of the mirror than from the direction. After Carol looked around, she suggested, “Shouldn’t we just go?” I adjusted my stool deliberately back and forth making scrunching noises then considered departure. My curious mind followed my eyes straying up institutional-green walls above the mirror, the same light green on so many governmental buildings in Mexico. Pondering yet another insanely-slow ceiling fan turning one full circumference every four or five seconds, thoughts of Carlos and us at that Chapala police station flashed back. Mortar had peeled off the wall revealing thin wood strips that once held the plaster in place.
Besides the thick almost intruding quiet, a midafternoon-Mexican-type siesta kind of quiet, I said “Maybe the bartender will be back in a sec.” Even private joviality of two amigos was somehow subdued out of an inexplicable respect for the time of day. Somebody must have served them beer I rationalized.
“These stools are sure hard,” willfully deciding to become comfortable, even contemplative despite the stool, despite my butt, like the way people surely must have become comfortable and thoughtful inside a Mexican siesta place. During visits to the country over the years, I learned how patience or at least how appearing to be patient was a good albeit challenging discipline for Americans to embrace. Besides, we didn’t want to seem conspicuous, did we? At 3:30 in the afternoon, I realized how it may take about half hour to make it to 3:31. Other Americans just couldn’t figure this pace out. The concept of “right now!” doesn’t exist here. It was a pleasant, uncomplicated thought for me. Watching the fan again, it all made sense the more I thought about it.
There were glasses here and there on the lower counter behind the bar, a few recently used ones to my side, others clean and neatly-positioned in front of the mirror facing us, a row of bottles (mostly spirits and liqueurs) and what looked like fresh suds in a sink. Someone couldn’t be far away.
● ● ●
A Tender ‘Tender
“Hola.” A friendly young male voice from behind a beaded curtain to the left of the mirror corrected “oh, hello” in unaccented English as he pushed between clicking beads lowering two cases of beer under the counter out of view. “What can I gitcha?” he said studiously wiping his hands off, and only then making actual eye contact. The small, skinny, twenty-something guy smiled with human genuineness despite the preconception we were indeed American. He raised his thick black eyebrows into a question mark.
“Red wine?” I asked raising both of my own eyebrows, a copied but legitimate question mark appearing on my face. Y’see, few guys drink wine at bars in Mexico lest you’re at a Hilton or a resort Americans frequent, especially midafternoon, especially red wine. It just wasn’t really appropriate or usual thing to order. Not liking beer that much, I didn’t really feel like a Margarita and didn’t see a blender anyway.
Margaritas. My fallback drink when vino tinto wasn’t available (what’s more, I wasn’t sure this place would have ice or whether the ice or water could be trusted!). Wasn’t a Margarita an American drink anyhow? There were in fact some wine glasses. Besides, he already knew we were tourists, didn’t he? His English was too good. I had wanted to say “vino tinto” instead of “red wine” in order to practice some more of my tourist Spanish. My mind wasn’t quick enough.
“I’ll have a Margarita, on the rocks, no salt,” Carol said certainly not considering either ice or water nor caring about presenting her own self as the tourist she obviously was.
“Sure.” He fixed Carol’s first after finding ice in its hiding place, and shaking a metal can with a stage presence meant for us; he knew what Americans liked. He poured mine from a dark bottle tucked away amidst liqueurs into a standard wine glass with a sense of experience, and twist of a wrist to avoid that inevitable wine-bottle drip, a twist I think he particularly wanted me to see, then retreated behind curtains, beads again clicking in multiple unisons.
I heard him humming a familiar tune, but couldn’t name it. Carol wondered out loud where he kept the white wine, had she asked for it, “maybe it’s in with the beer?” she speculated. But I couldn’t see a cooler anywhere, must be under the counter. I then stood up to look into that mirror but still couldn’t detect any sort of refrigerator. Carol speculated about historical objects, and we took turns pointing out odd things as we discovered them. “That mirror is really old, look at those white specks and streaks around the edges where the backing has come off,” she said, “it really is really old.”
“Those tin ceiling plates look like they’re ready to fall off,” my eyes gazing up at what looked like several loose plates.
“They’re really, really old too” repeating that monotonous word “really” into just about every sentence. Above the wide but low mirror across from us was a shelf of odd-sized glasses, and above that was a high wall of that dreadful institutional-green paint, peeling in several places, and dusty looking everywhere.
The wall looked more than just needing new paint; there was faded script lettering yet further up, maybe ten or twelve feet, with writing difficult to read since the pale brownish colors had faded so much against the green. The fading message blended inconsequentially into the eroding green wall expanse; probably it was some announcement or advertisement from all those Pancho Villa visits Carol conjectured. But, why was it so high on the wall? Hardly anyone could see it. Straining my eyes, I tried hard to read the message aloud, stumbling through the hard-to-pronounce top three words. Why way up there?
My first thought, the wall just needed painting. Some stucco had fallen from the last scripted word “feliz” (leaving a rough, gray crater), but I could easily see that indeed “feliz” had to be the correct word despite the odd ornamental script and a bit of missing plaster in a couple places.
My second thought, the wall needed repair; there were some open cracks as well, lots of them. More plaster surely would fall soon. Glancing at the counter half expecting to see missing gray pieces of stucco but I didn’t. I still kept studying the wall, sipping wine as the bartender lumbered in with two more cases, one Corona and one Dos Equis, setting them on top of two previous San Miguels.
“Hey guys, almost done,” he said smiling to himself without looking up, retreating yet once again with a crush of bead-against-bead sounds not waiting for a response.
Feliz. I knew it meant “happy” in English. Maybe it was some old bar proverb on the wall. Curious, I focused on translating it. Since no one else nearby could actually hear me except Carol, I articulated the fading words out loud in my usual Spanish, but adeptly; I wanted it to sound authentic. She didn’t say anything. With tourist Spanish tucked behind my ear, coupled with eagerness to understand before having to ask, I tried translating the bleached-out words. Even though able to translate every word, I couldn’t get a drift of its collective meaning. My attention, and my neck angle, may have looked a bit strange had there been anyone to observe; yet, this time someone did indeed notice.
“Where y’ from?” asked the bartend behind the bar, finally appearing willing and accommodating. He gathered the three dirty beer glasses from the counter and gently sunk them into the still sorta-sudsy soapy-white sink water.
“Montana, or Montaña.” I said offering authentic enunciation as I accentuated the “ny” sound of the ñ (I was living in Montana in 2003). You speak really good English, y’know?” He didn’t pick up on my attempt at pronunciation, or even my correct “ny” sound.
“… used to live in Southern California; family went there when I was seven.” He chuckled softly at his California musings, relaxed himself onto the lower counter, and then caught my eyes descending from the upper wall behind him. “Got into trouble in L.A. awhile back, picked living here …better …safer.”
Notwithstanding this rather serious statement, he brandished his words as if he were talking about an achievement with pride, smiling …not like he was running from anything. I was thinking gangs, drugs, or worse. He went on, correctly anticipating my interest. “Now I’m doing well. My parents wanted to come back home here too, but my father’s job in Anaheim pays too much,” he mulled. “Soon they’ll save enough, they’ll be back too, so they keep sayin’ at least. So I take care of things here for family.”
“How long you been back?” I asked mimicking his tone, but also thinking more interpretively about what family might mean beyond his biological one.
“A year. This is a good place,” he said with positive gestures as he looked up and around. “When I was in California, I saw lots of things, y’know, hard-to-believe things.” His eyes looked out the window with a swift and momentarily solemn stare, then glanced over to the two friends in the corner and stood up. His attention shifted gears pulling out two Coronas. “My family is originally from here. My uncle Bernardo actually owns the place jointly with my father.” In the mirror the barely visible sight of Pancho’s belly bouncing caught my eyes as we heard his hand slapping the tabletop, then quiet again. The bartender had taken what must have been some invisible cue and delivered two more cold Coronas bringing four empty bottles back with that unavoidable glass-clinking breaking our muffled silence, and put pesos in a little metal box he kept out of sight. After the two uttered a simultaneous “gracias, Juliol” the mustachioed fellow immediately went quietly back to his stories and belly-bearing animations. I completely missed exactly where Julio had found cold replacements, still no refrigerator in sight. I looked at other places on the wall where plaster had flaked away; surely pieces of plaster must be on the floor.
“Don’t get many nortes in here…” Julio said after tossing empties into the trash with more glass-clanking bangs. He went on “…too far off the plaza, too hard to find or something. How’d you guys find us?” He began washing glasses, but looked back and forth at us.
I said, “Heck, I see lots of Americans in the plaza. Where do they go?” studying my glass.
Carol joined in “oh, we just like to walk around town … we’ve been here about a week.”
“We come to Mexico, México quite often,” correcting my pronunciation for his benefit, or maybe really for my own benefit to show knowledge of the language. “I like it here in your country. I suppose I look for places where tourists don’t usually go,” smiling to see if he understood, “I’ve been to México maybe a hundred times.
“Some yanquis do come in. There’s a lawyer from Chicago who lives upstairs most of the year, he comes in nearly every day. Sometimes his wife comes too; she’s from Queretaro, not far from here. Y’know, quite a few nortes (North Americans) live around here year round. Climate never gets too hot or cold at this altitude. But y’know, it’s a lot busier at night, you oughta come by and see the crowd. Right now, as you may have guessed, everyone else is napping,” with an American snicker and direct eye to Carol who was already chuckling. He sat down behind the counter again and wiped water rings away where glasses had been, seeming to want to engage. It was one of those lazy afternoons, a casual encounter with someone who might have a story to tell. At such times as these, ears become so much more valuable …not to preach but to ask questions …not to hear, but to listen.
“Siesta!” I pronounced the word with a strong, long emphasis on the last syllable producing a long “ahhh” sound that he acknowledged with acquiescing grin. I noticed tattoos on the tops of his fingers: eight little blue crosses amateurishly inked near each hand knuckle. Listening to him relate his story, I noticed each eyelid had ink on them as well when his eyes closed or when he looked down …a tiny blue cross on each eyelid. Trying not to stare, I guessed he was used to people deciding why he was carrying these kinds of badges. When he made eye contact, I nodded with a raised brow to signal what I was looking at; of course he understood. An invisible personal line was being crossed.
“These?” he whispered seriously, glancing sardonically upward as he must’ve done before, “I, uh …used to run with these guys, y’see? And, we all had the same ‘mark’ y’know? …the same ‘brand’ if y’know what I mean?” Deliberately avoiding the word ‘gang’ seemed apparent. “…there was some bad shit going on then …huge amounts of money …really bad shit, but, that’s old news now …y’know?” Wanting to say more, he decided, perhaps considering our age, we may not get his drift. His eyebrows raised as he sat down again, lifting the bottle of vino tinto red in an I-trust-you gesture intending to top my glass.
Overlapping his gestures and his slow voice, I said, “I get it, tell me more.” Of course I didn’t know what he meant nor could I, but I was listening, I understood his overriding purpose.
“Another?” He poured before I could nod. Carol’s margarita glass was still half full.
Camouflaging uneasiness, I glanced upward. “¿Como se dice la palabra ‘la razón’ en ingles?” I asked in Spanish finally demonstrating more than mere interest in the language, and to show I could pronounce it correctly as well. I wanted to translate the word razón into English. I knew it meant “reason” if translated literally. Beyond being a mere visitor, I wanted to be less an ugly American or run-of-the-mill tourist.
“Ahhh … razón?” he said slowly as he glanced up the wall mimicking my previous siesta “ahhh.”. “It can mean ‘reason’ but in this case, it means something a little different. Do you have it yet?”
I read the sentence in as correctly pronounced Spanish as I could, then stammered through my translation word by word, “…most prefer …to have a reason …to be right …?”
“Most people prefer…” correcting myself.
“Most would rather…” he gently added in a low whisper, not to overtly correct me as a teacher might, but to enter my private process of translation.
My eyes told him to finish the sentence, so he looked right at me and said very deliberately and slowly, “most people would rather be right than be happy.” He stated his translation in a haiku-like poetic way seeking acknowledgement of the author’s intention, lowering his chin, waiting for my response as his closed fingers kept rhythm a few inches from his tongue. I pressed my lips together, nodding. He went on. “My grandfather told me he painted those words long ago when he was young. I can’t count how many times my Uncle Bernardo reminded my aunt these words were written just for her!” His chuckle made Carol laugh, but I’m not sure she was really listening as her eyes were wandering around the room.
Translating the aphorism how he did, communicated he not only understood the meaning, but embraced something else. Julio became more contemplative. I found a piece of scratch paper and copied the adage down, and put it into my pocket wanting to make sure I remembered it exactly. “Hmmm,” continuing my smile, thinking of the intensity of this image; it was like someone looking not exactly at me, but into me, so I engaged. “Heck, amigo, you might be right about that!” emphasizing “right” slightly then adding an artificial chuckle to induce further humor …and a play on words. He wasn’t surprised. Was there more?
● ● ●
A Parry …or Touché
Julio stared at the counter. “Most Americans feel and believe like that, don’t you think?” His intensity warmed invitingly as if he were asking me to join him where he was mentally going; I tried to accept. Not being uncomfortable with someone half my age philosophizing, I recognized a questioning retort.
I hesitated “…hmmm.” I looked up at the light brown words again trying to find further meaning in faded letters. He waited. I said, “Well, most people are probably like that, true, but not only Americans. I guess I might be like that too from time to time,” using my finger to point at my own nose, to add humor. Air around us became still as thought processes walked in lockstep rhythm.
He didn’t saying anything right away as he wiped clean the already-clean counter, but his eyes seemed to prod, to push the silence, pulling more words from me. He tipped my glass as I went on to say “…a lot of people are like that, sure, but being right doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be happy too, does it?”
Pouring more wine as an invitation to continue, he then began mixing another Margarita for Carol without asking after she pushed her empty glass an inch forward. Standing up with her new margarita, she began examining pictures on the walls around the room, yellowed photographs of San Miguel de Allende from the 1920s through the 1950s (judging from the cars on the streets), disengaging from us. Julio wiped the wet ring where Carol’s glass had been, studying other older spots no rag could ever make clean. I went along for the ride confident my own generalities would prevail over his matter-of-factness. After all, this wasn’t really an argument about anything complicated, was it? He was being patient, yet I felt an urge to say something more.
“Hell, you seem pretty happy, mi amigo, aren’t you often right as well?” I said. He still said nothing; was his eyes laughing at me? So I said, “I mean, there’s value in accuracy, isn’t there? We need to know what is and isn’t right …right?” I wanted segue, couldn’t; found myself yacking instead. I needed something that would hand off to him what I was trying to say, perhaps gaining some admissions; but I was treading water. Then trying to play his game, I looked him in the eye, “right? …right?” Then I shut up (was I pinching my lips?). Then I deduced I was proving a point here …and not my own.
Julio said, “I think …you …are …right,” emphasizing each word individually “…but, y’know …I think most Americans are right …most of the time …don’t you think? I mean, I’m not so sure about every single American …just ones I’ve met, y’know?” He began straightening glasses; but, I sensed withdrawal as his hand went back to the now more than half empty bottle of wine. He poured himself a splash of wine and sipped it. “Hmmm. Not bad, but do you think this may have been open a little too long …maybe?”
“Well…” suddenly I felt I had indeed been right, and that he was right for saying I was right. Then, I thought he was separating us …he, Mexican …I, American. To this I took calm exception, but that passed fairly quickly without offense as his sarcasm was so gentle, almost witty. “Well …my wine’s fine” I said. He poured a little more into my glass without my asking and without my having to feign objection. “I s’pose you could say that most Americans are right; you’ve been there …you’ve seen stuff.” My mind was too intensely occupied to think about stale wine, it was easier to claim being right or wrong than to define being happy. Now I felt intellectually cornered. “You may’ve been places I’ve not seen, but I’ve seen stuff too. But I also believe most Mexicans are happier than Americans …are Mexicans more often right about that?”
Julio yielded his Socratic role graciously. Silence. Even the two in the corner remained quiet in private conversation. Julio placed the near-empty bottle of Mexican Red back next to the mirror like decoration speaking respectfully, “you understand ideas, I can tell. That’s why you’re here in México too, right?” pronouncing México authentically and articulating words slowly. “God, I don’t know” Julio surrendered gently then offered, “y’know, I just look around and see things …lots of people, I look at their eyes, guess things; I’m pretty good at that …I smile a lot, people smile back … but I don’t really know much. I used to know a lot, not so important anymore, know what I mean. ¿Es verdad?” (right?) “Not sure I could ever really be an American. I see people seeking something …I was like once too. Most of us don’t know what we’re looking for, think? Most just know they haven’t found it yet whatever ‘it’ happens to be. Until they find ‘it’ though, they’re content with acts of looking. If that contentment happens to be happiness, then I guess you’re right.”
Then I said, “Por supuesto, amigo.” Of course, “it’s the ‘journey,’ isn’t it?” Not really a question, was it just a cliché? I thought our wavelengths might be meshing again as I swished my wine slowly …trying to detect bouquet …was this a touché? Whose?
“Y’know,” rubbing the crosses on his right hand with his left fingers, “it would be easier for me to be American, than for you to become Mexican. I’ve made my choice on purpose. But you, you’ll return to the U.S. soon. Yet, you will think about ‘what if …?’ Think so?” looking up.
Another 180° twisted my attitude. I felt pretty good at that moment; I felt happy. For one, I felt happy I could feel happy and be right at the same time. But I felt happy I could feel happy without being exactly right too, at least this minute …feeling good just being here at this moment. I felt good that it all seemed right …yet being right was immaterial; anything else didn’t matter. Besides, by his own admission, he surely was searching for happiness too, wasn’t he? “Yeah, I’ll return here someday” I said. “But I keep coming back to México nevertheless.” Julio knew more, a lot more that I didn’t. Still, was I so obvious, so transparent that this heretofore yet-to-become-manifested realization was only surfacing here and now? I wasn’t so sure. If happiness couldn’t be possessed, then seeking it would do. I must be right about that no matter what. The red wine had a pleasant bite to it. It wasn’t expensive wine; but, it was the right taste for this crooked brain moment. I didn’t think it was stale at all.
It was the right red wine.
Placing two, one hundred peso notes ($20) on the bar, I stood up surmising it would exceed what three, or was it four glasses of wine and two Margaritas would cost. Was it a right thing to do? I wanted to tip Julio but I didn’t want to look too American doing it. That I thought about this at all bothered me, thereupon dismissing further misty thoughts. Carol agreed it was time to go. My mind was pleasantly drifting but on its own bumpy cobblestone mental road with feet not yet treading in dutiful synch as the now-low sun, like a planned signal, crept through the open doorway slowly climbing my pant leg almost imperceptibly touching me. But an intellectual nudge it was. I stretched my torso raising my arms …smiled …smiled at myself for being so predictably American on one hand, and for yet being so intellectually frustrated by something that ought to have been so easily better managed on the other, but a worthy challenge.
“You can come back again?” Julio altered a clear-cut sentence into a veiled question. “Y’know, your journey is …” his voice trailed off politely under my own too quick response overlapping his as he kept talking as I was speaking.
“I shall, yeah, sure, I can do that” I said as I ended my stretch and began to turn away in a polite yet respectful way as his sentence ended with mine.
“…kind of like my own” he finished in chorus with my words along with a genuine smile. Then glancing my way with his eyebrows raised, he removed my glass and wiped the counter yet once again as if no one had been there at all.
“Grácias, Julio.” I said. As we stepped toward the doorway, the two white-shirted men in the corner had already walked out without our noticing their exit. How could we have missed that? Their glasses were empty. Did they pay?
Squinting at the light intensity with low-in-the-sky sun to our backs, we turned right, pausing only to look up cobblestones toward the church atop the shadow-stalking up seven blocks. I watched carefully where I placed my shoes on the stones (pondering whether there a right way to walk on cobblestones to avoid tripping). There were virtually no cars moving on the narrow street, so I chose not to walk on the sidewalk while Carol did.
● ● ●
The right thing to do
It seemed less the right thing to do just because it was right, but appropriate for the moment whether right or not. But I was bothered by how back and forth thinking process captured my consciousness so intently. Was the absence of either being right or being happy the victim of the other? Then I realized Julio hadn’t introduced himself, but I did know his name nonetheless. Surely he’d be surprised when I’d remember it later. Remembering his name was the right thing to do. “Damn it! Stop! I’m still doing it.” I said to myself privately. That this “right” business bouncing back was disconcerting. Was this just another compulsive/obsessive thought pattern seizing my consciousness? I let what was gained from this lazy afternoon’s sojourn sift around some more. I finally capitulated yet once again just to stop. My mind began tucking away future questions.
I was now suddenly content; no tripping on my stony mental cobblestoned sojourn even if it were just for a moment. We walked up the bumpy street, making polite way for this ancient, colorfully-shawled, iconic gray-haired madre of madres who ably carried two very large bundles of laundry under her arms coming the other way. She also walked in the middle of this narrow alley-wide street. She seemed happy; she probably didn’t care if she were right or not. This right v. happy dichotomy didn’t need to be. My self-righteous “American” sidebar” was disconcerting, but yes, I might come back.
There! It happened. I could feel it! It was like exhaling a big, withheld breath. Then as the street slowly moved in reverse, I felt small. Was I was so inconspicuous by all this appropriate behavior? Or, was it over-rationalization? Or, need I just to let it go where it may?
Then I realized I didn’t introduce myself; Julio didn’t even know my name. He didn’t ask; did it matter? Is this how he handled every mid-afternoon siesta-clad conversation with those he would not likely meet again? I felt a whispered pang of guilt gaining more than I had given. Wine. Introductions. Pancho Villa. Being right. Despite preoccupations, I hadn’t given much right thought about the right thing to do after all and wasn’t happy about it either. It all now seemed right, and still I was in this vague process of becoming content despite my extravagant arrogance. There, I could feel that profligate self-righteous anchor break off my body yet once again! Being happy wasn’t the goal; it was the perfect byproduct of dismissing what doesn’t matter. Yeah, most folks would rather be right than happy until they define what really matters.
When we passed the weathered-stone church with its gray walls becoming dim in the shadows of other buildings, I blended in. I pondered complexities in a rather awkwardly happy way. In spite of bright colors around me and a warm glow I could feel on my checks, I could no longer actually see details through blurry eyes and, no one else noticed Carol and I walking next to those ancient stones at least none that I noticed. My load had become much lighter …my step a little more deliberate. But, it didn’t really matter. Right, happy, right, happy. I couldn’t seem to let go of the tugging words lingering as they began to mentally evaporate into some brain dust that sometimes clouds one’s head but ultimately blows away.
Yet, once more, that unique anchor-loaded feeling’s exit could be discerned.
I now felt content.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊