An American mom trapped in suburbia liberates herself from her peanut-butter-and-jelly life and sets up housekeeping in old Mexico. As she tackles the cultural quirks that send less hardy souls screaming and running back to the U.S., she pursues her dream to live as a hot tamale. This funny coming-of-age memoir recounts Lois Sonna Mark’s antics south of the border, as told to her daughter, Dr. Linda.
American peanut butter has become plentiful in Mexico since my mother lived there in the 1970s. There have been many other changes as well:
Yet, as I discovered on moving to Mexico in 2005, many customs persist.
If my mother’s memoir inspires you to open a contraband business, I wish you a low-bribe, tax-free, un-incarcerated future.
All situations, events, and characters in this book are real. No names have been changed to protect the guilty, except for the names of the government officials, which I don’t recall. Maridél, the Student from Hell, is a compilation of my more devilish pupils.
OK, so maybe I didn’t actually wear a red flamenco outfit on my first day in Mexico. But my American mini-skirt drew as much outrage from the women and acclaim from the men as if I had tap danced through town, offering free peeks at my castanets.
Also, my daughter blew up the bathroom and accomplished the other plumbing disasters during visits to Mexico, not me. Linda also had the run-ins with the busload of Mexican males, Fernando the Fearful, and the nurses at the hospital. She toned down some of my more outrageous antics during my departure from Illinois. The truth, Linda insisted, was too strange for a non-fiction book.
Finally, after getting caught smuggling a water heater into Mexico, I did not haul any more large appliances across the border. I stuck to smaller-sized, less conspicuous contraband.
I swear upon my blushing face, the rest is true.
Lois Sonna Mark
(AKA Lois Sonna, Batman, María Luisa González, Lois Mark)
As I added macaroni to the pot of boiling water on April 1, 1968, my nerves were stretched tighter than my Playtex girdle. I glanced at the phone for the umpteenth time, willing it to ring. The clock was inching toward five-thirty, the end of Diane’s workday. If she didn’t call soon, my cliffhanger would last all night.
I was so focused on the phone, I startled at the sound of my daughter clomping into the kitchen on her three-inch platform shoes. “You’re home early,” I said with as much good cheer as I could muster.
Linda nodded vaguely. She set up the ironing board and plugged in the iron. Then, right before my astonished eyes, she did a backbend over the board, arranged her long hair like a skirt, lifted the iron over her head, and began pressing the kinks from her long, dark mane.
Within a minute her face reddened, her lips quivered, and her arms began to tremble. Her new hair-straightening method was apparently as difficult as it was ridiculous.
I tried not to laugh. “If you fall off those shoes and twist an ankle, you’ll miss the audition at the Schubert,” I warned the human pretzel.
“OK. I’ll be careful, Mom.”
No snide comeback from my testy teen?
“Dinner…smells…wonderful!” she gushed between gasps.
I sniffed the starchy cloud above the pot of noodles. “Yes, there’s nothing quite like the luscious aroma of boiling macaroni.”
Linda nodded, which caused her to press a crease into her hair. She grimaced but didn’t otherwise react to this fashion disaster.
Something was definitely amiss. “What’s up?” I asked.
“I…didn’t… go….to...my….tap…lesson,” the contortion artist replied between grunts.
I kept my tone upbeat as I braced myself for–for heaven only knew what. “You didn’t feel like shuffling off to Buffalo today?”
Suddenly Linda jerked out of her backbend and spun around to face me. “I didn’t go because I quit!” she shrieked.
“You WHAT?” Ah, but today was April Fools’ Day! I decided to play along. “How will you give your regards to Broadway? Make a splash on the silver screen? How will you become a–” My words caught in my throat as I stared at her stony face. She wasn’t kidding! “Then how will you become a Rockette?”
“I already told you, I’m too short. And dance lessons are too boring!”
I was so furious, I dropped the spoon, and it clattered to the floor. Without pausing to pick it up, I put my hands on my hips. “BORING!” I sputtered. “How dare you! I chauffeured you to and from your dance studio every week for ten very long years! I stayed awake though most of your lessons! I managed not to snore loudly during your recitals! You don’t know the first thing about boring!”
Her eyes flashed. “Then why don’t you take lessons?”
“Don’t tempt me,” I snapped. I picked up the spoon, rinsed it in the sink, and gave the noodles an overly hefty stir, splashing my hand with drops of boiling water.
I smeared some Parkay margarine onto my welts and managed to calm down while Linda disassembled her makeshift beauty parlor. “So what’s next?” I asked. “If a career as a dancer is out, what will you do with your life?”
“Well, psychology is interesting.”
“Listen to people’s troubles all day? Talk about boring!”
As Linda clomped out of the kitchen, I collapsed into a chair. My life flashed before my eyes, and the pictures weren’t pretty.
After years of driving Bill to piano lessons and conducting nightly nagging sessions to get him to practice, he had quit, dashing the experts’ predictions for a concert career and my mother-of-Van-Cliburn hope.
At age six, Larry was already a T-ball dropout, so I hadn’t been Cloroxing all those dirty uniforms for the next Babe Ruth.
When I scrubbed Mark’s crayoned scribbles from a wall, was I prepping another canvas for a budding Van Gogh as I liked to think? Or just cleaning up typical toddler messes?
I had relinquished my plans to graduate from college, see the world, and take the world by storm in a high-powered career. Instead I had devoted my entire adult life to handing opportunities to my kids on a plastic platter, and for what? So they could follow in my dreary footsteps and become drudges like me?
That thought stopped me cold. A drudge? Was that what I was?
I tore off a piece of brown paper from a grocery bag, did some quick calculations, and stared in horror at the totals.
In the seventeen years since saying, “I do” to Lee, I had cooked 18,615 meals and washed the same number of loads of dishes, give or take some trips to McDonalds. I had vacuumed the house at least 2,652 times. Those numbers would double by the time Mark flew the nest.
At age thirty-eight I already felt as frumpy as a dodo bird. If something didn’t change fast, I’d be a stark raving cuckoo bird by the time I hit forty. I turned around and stared at the telephone. I needed it to ring. I needed for my best friend’s news to be good–to save me.
As I stirred the packet of powdered cheese and a bit of margarine into the cooked macaroni, the phone’s sudden shriek startled me. Once again the metal spoon tumbled from my fingers. Without pausing to retrieve it from the floor, I hurried across the kitchen to answer.
“Welcome to the firm!” Diane exclaimed. “You got the job! We’ll be colleagues!”
My gasp muddled my reply. My words merged into a strangled roar as I inhaled through my mouth and emerged as a juicy snort when I exhaled through my nose.
I sank into a kitchen chair and listened as Diane spoke in exclamation points. “You’ll have a top-floor office with a view of downtown! An executive salary with benefits! An expense account! You leapt straight from the kitchen to the top of our corporate organizational chart in a single bound!”
My mind was racing faster than a speeding bullet. I could hire a maid! Kiss my KP and diaper duties good-bye! I’d meet interesting people and do interesting work.
I plucked a bobby pin from the nape of my neck and re-positioned it under my hairnet. From now on, I’d get my hair permed at a beauty salon.
Diane lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “No offense, but one semester at Roosevelt College doesn’t exactly meet the Ph.D. requirement for this job. A part-time local newspaper job doesn’t quite satisfy the five-year marketing experience requirement. I sang your praises to my boss, but I’m frankly amazed that he even decided to interview you. I hope you didn’t pad your résumé or lie on the job application.”
“I didn’t send a résumé. Probably my unorthodox answers on the job application piqued your boss’s curiosity. Under ‘Related Experience’ I wrote, ‘Yes!’ When your boss asked for details during the interview, I told him about the marketing campaign I had spearheaded.”
“I didn’t realize! You led a campaign?”
“I marketed my plan for improving the educational environment to the PTA. I suggested re-painting the icky green lockers at Bill’s junior high school a cheerful rose color.”
“And the PTA went for it?”
“No. But your boss forgot to ask how my campaign turned out when he heard my slogan.”
“What was it?
“Hot Pink or Big Stink.”
I stretched the telephone cord to its curly limit, pulled some paper plates and plastic forks from the cabinet, and began setting the dinner table.
“Then your marketing VP asked my opinion about a campaign for spinach,” I continued. “I suggested ditching the Popeye cartoon ads and shooting some footage of youngsters chained to a kitchen table, sitting in front of dinner plates heaped with canned spinach. As the youngsters weep and wail, a Dracula voiceover would intone, ‘Adults hate the slimy green stuff, too, kids. But life isn’t all Twinkies and Ding Dongs!’ The VP liked my creativity.”
“You’re too much, Lois! Can you start on Monday?”
My husband’s stormy face leapt into my mind’s eye.
“I went out on a limb to get you that interview,” Diane said darkly. “If you didn’t want the job–”
“But I did! I mean, I do!” I had spent my entire adult life waddling around the house like a dodo bird, batting my useless wings against my suburban cage. Lee squawked if I left our metaphorical nest to do more than flit to the grocery store or church. Convincing him to let me fly like the eagle of my dreams would be the biggest challenge of my new marketing career. “I’ll call you first thing tomorrow,” I promised Diane.
To soften Lee’s mood, I decided to jazz up dinner. I added canned tuna to the macaroni and cheese, arranged some Twinkies on a platter, replaced the paper plates with Melnac dishware, the plastic forks with metal flatware, and the Styrofoam cups with glasses. Lee’s six o’clock dinner deadline was fast approaching, so there wasn’t time to do more.
When I called the troops to the table, ex-dancer Linda teetered in on her clunky shoes. Next came ex-pianist Bill, his massive bell-bottoms on his faded jeans slapping at his thin ankles. Then ex-T-ball player Larry arrived followed by Mark the graffiti artist.
As I lifted Mark into his highchair, he shot me a big, drooly smile and crowed his one and only word: “Batman!”
“Why doesn’t he say ‘mama’ like a normal kid?” the king of the castle grumbled as he lowered himself into his vinyl throne at the head of the table.
“Perhaps he’s commenting on my unusual maternal essence,” I said, stroking Mark’s fine blond hair. Bill and Larry had also been towheads like me as babies. Their hair had since darkened, but Clairol kept mine golden.
Lee humphed and eyed the glop of tuna-noodle-cheese casserole on his plate. “What is this? Is this supposed to be FOOD?” he demanded, folding his arms over his chest.
Perhaps Mr. Grouch would find the fare more palatable if sweetened with a dollop of levity. I doubted he’d appreciate my line about life not being all Twinkies and Ding Dongs. I needed a different approach.
“Food?” I asked. I made a show of looking around the table, as if searching for some elusive edibles. Then I pushed back my chair, leaned over, and pretended to search under the table. At that moment Mark lobbed a tuna-noodle glob onto the floor and smiled at the splat. “Do you kids see anything resembling food around here?” I asked quickly, hoping Lee hadn’t noticed Mark’s breech of table etiquette.
“Dad means this casserole, Mom,” Larry grumbled. He might be a genius according to the primary school IQ chart, but my humor rarely penetrated little Einstein’s brain. Larry folded his arms over his chest like Lee, delivering the I-Won’t-Eat-It-If-Dad-Doesn’t Challenge. “This looks gross.”
I reached across the table and prodded the lumpy orange mound on Larry’s plate with my fork. “Well, it kind of looks like food, doesn’t it? Though it also looks like chunks of dried up Play Dough smothered in orange Silly Putty sauce. Did you put away your toys like I told you?”
Larry nodded solemnly, not getting the joke. Linda and Bill glanced nervously at their father and pretended not to get it, either.
“Batman!” Mark crowed, preparing to toss another fistful of casserole onto the floor.
I caught his hand mid-fling and directed it to his mouth. “Mark, can you say ‘yummy?’ ”
As he gummed his casserole glob, his squinty-eyed look of disgust suggested that “yummy” wasn’t an apt adjective. Whenever my family tallied my many domestic failings, my cooking usually came in first. When Mark was old enough to vote, it would be unanimous, because I didn’t like my cooking, either.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s find out if this is a Play-Dough-and-Silly-Putty casserole.” I plunged my index finger up to the knuckle into the casserole mound on my plate, extracted my orange appendage, and sniffed it warily. “It has the distinctive reek of–” I sniffed again. “Could it be? Yes. This smells like food!”
Larry smiled. Linda and Bill glanced at the storm clouds gathering on Lee’s face and sucked the insides of their cheeks to contain their mirth.
“Batman!” Mark exclaimed, gracing me with a gooey orange grin.
The thundercloud burst. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING, LOIS?” Lee thundered.
I wiped my cheesy finger with my napkin. Tonight of all nights, I needed to turn our tired marital melodrama into a fresh, new comedy. “Come hell or high water,” I decided, “I’m going to make him laugh!” I surveyed the stifled grins of my traitorous teens. “Them, too,” I swore.
“What I’m saying, Lee,” I said carefully, “is that this isn’t just food–not mere physical matter that makes kids grow tall and parents grow flab. This is soul food, as our hippie son might say!”
Bill flipped his Beatle-length bangs from his brow, and I glimpsed a twinkle before his hair descended back over his eyes. The doctor had prescribed mealtime calm for his nervous stomach, which had now progressed to a pre-ulcer. A twinkle was good.
I leaned over Mark’s highchair and lowered my face to within an inch of his tray. “Look here, Baby. See how your casserole is a bit burned and crunchy on the outside, and kind of cold and squishy on the inside? It’s just like Mama used to make!”
“How dare you say that about my mother!” Lee began, repeating his lines even though I wasn’t saying mine.
“Not like your mother used to make, Lee. It’s like this mother used to make. Yes, I’ve been preparing this same lousy dish for years.”
Lee looked confused. Progress!
I searched for a punch line. “Should we pass on my disgusting culinary tradition to the next generation? Or check out the kids’ prospective mates first?” I wagged my index finger at Bill. “If you dare to marry a floozy, Son, I swear, I’ll give her the recipe!”
Larry giggled and Bill chuckled. Linda’s waist-length mane bobbed, so I guessed she was laughing, though only her pimpled nose showed through the part in her freshly ironed curtain.
Lee’s eyebrows knit at the seam as he tried to fathom this twist in the plot. “This food tastes rotten, Lois.”
“Rotten, no. Bad, yes. But either way, it’s important for our children’s future.”
“Leftovers tomorrow? I work hard, and all you do is–”
“No, I mean the recipe is important. It provides essential non-nutritional value. One day Linda can march confidently to the altar, secure in the knowledge that her husband couldn’t possibly be as appalled by her cooking as you are by mine. Our boys won’t compare their dearly beloveds’ meals to mine and find their wives lacking.” I rose and lifted the Corning Ware bowl above my head like a trophy. “This casserole is a pound of divorce prevention! It guarantees children happy marriages!”
Linda, Bill, and Larry clapped, so baby Mark clapped, too.
Not so my cranky spouse. “If you stayed home like Mrs. Kocmoud, not to mention every other red-blooded wife, instead of gallivanting around town for that newspaper–”
I contained the urge to add the casserole to Mark’s collection of orange mounds on the floor. “If I didn’t work a few measly hours a week from home,” I hissed between clenched teeth, “we couldn’t afford tuna or cheese for the macaroni casserole.”
Lee’s face darkened and hardened.
Oops. Mentioning his income had been a tactical error. “Imagine a world of macaroni-only meals, kids!” I said quickly. “The noodle makers would rejoice. Charley the Tuna could continue swimming the salty seas instead of floating in fresh spring water. Though the reduced cheese consumption might cost Elsie the Cow her job.”
“Don’t change the subject!” Lee said. “Your place is at home! If God had wanted women to work, He would have given them business suits.”
What? Had he really said that? “Well, the Lord hath finally done it,” I countered. “K-Mart now has a whole line of polyester outfits called ‘pantsuits.’ They’re cuter and more practical than the fig leaf the Almighty designed for Eve way back when.”
“I wear the pants in this family,” my hopelessly old-fashioned hubby yelled. He pushed his chair from the table with such force, the sound scared Mark, and he started crying. Lee stamped off to the living room for his daily rendezvous with the Chicago Sun Times.
I stared bleakly at the messy table. After doing tonight’s dishes, I’d still have 18,614 loads to go.
“But lots of wives work these days,” Diane said when I phoned my regrets to the firm.
“Yes, but none of them is married to Lee.” I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder and began sweeping the kitchen floor.
“Like the song says, ‘The times, they are a-changin’.’ Have you read The Feminine Mystique?”
“Is that the sequel to One Fish/Two Fish/Red Fish/Blue Fish? I mostly stick to Dr. Seuss these days. Though I did read Coming of Age in Samoa a few years back for Linda’s social studies report.”
“This kind of job doesn’t come along every day. Not to someone with your–um–qualifications.”
I couldn’t even concoct a catchy comeback.
After I hung up, I turned on the radio and began slogging through dish load number 18,617. A bong on a Chinese gong signaled the arrival of my secret lover, but the customary tug at my heart failed to materialize when the silky-voiced adman invited me on a fun-filled trip to the Orient. Nor did my fingers itch when he announced the Northwest Airlines toll-free number for dialing now and paying later.
I strove to cast off the thick blanket of gloom by reminding myself that I’d already been to downtown Chicago a million times. The marketing job wouldn’t have fulfilled my dream to travel.
After finishing the dishes, I walked into the living room to find Mark approaching a wall, crayons in hand. “That’s a no-no!” I exclaimed.
He dropped the crayons and ran howling to his room.
I had the urge to drop the dust rag and run howling to mine. What was wrong with me, anyway? My friends thought that freedom meant being at liberty to choose any brand of peanut butter their husband could afford and their children would allow. By that definition I was free as a bird. I could indulge my kids’ preference for crunchy style Peter Pan.
In my heart I knew that the problem with me was Lee, and the problem with Lee was me. His moodiness and tantrums were undoing me and triggering Linda’s migraines, eroding Bill’s stomach, turning little Larry into a chronic crank, and erasing baby Mark’s smiles.
All Lee wanted was to be a Father-Knows-Best husband to an everyday housewife. To please him I just needed to quit my little newspaper job, suppress the more unusual parts of my personality, and become a dedicated domestic artist. I wasn’t ready to tackle the first two, but I could manage a happy homemaker project to mend last night’s hole in our marital fence.
I didn’t have to look far to find one. When I stepped into the hall, a Captain Crunch trail running from the kitchen to the boys’ bedroom caught my attention. That mess would infuriate Lee and did need to be cleaned up sooner rather than later. I had vacuumed thousands of times, so what were a few thousand more?
I wrestled the state-of-the-art General Electric swivel-style canister model from the closet. It had been my anniversary present from Lee. His thought in choosing it had meant much more to me than the gift itself. That was why I didn’t like it.
The vacuum valiantly slurped dust bunnies and linty crunchies into its gullet for a few feet. Then it refused to swallow and began regurgitating its meal back onto the carpet. I poked and prodded its long neck and fat belly to no avail. I checked its paper stomach, but it wasn’t full.
I glanced at my watch and started to panic. Lee would return from his night shift in two hours. Would the crumby carpet prove his main charge against me–that he was a perfect Ozzie husband, and I was a failure as a Harriet? And if I succeeded as a Harriet for Lee, what about me? Was Harriet happy? Had she ever been to the Orient?
For the umpteenth time that morning, I felt the pressure of tears building behind my eyes. My ex-dancer daughter had been hailing The Power of Positive Thinking as the remedy for every bout of unhappiness, and I was desperate enough to give that method a try. I searched for a positive thought. I toyed with calling G.E. and threatening to expose the company in my newspaper column unless the vacuum’s warrantee was extended, but that didn’t help. I needed to talk to someone, but whom?
My mother came to mind, but I hated to blow her image of me as “uncannily cheerful.” As a child I’d overheard her tell a neighbor, “If they hung Lois, she’d probably say she wouldn’t mind being hung again.” Besides, Mother had managed with two toddlers, a full-time job, and no husband. She’d probably tell me I should be grateful that I’d broken my vacuum and not my back.
I lacked personal experience with the blues, but Mother had said counting one’s blessings was a good way to beat them back, so I decided to count mine. The project proved harder than I’d expected. I finally came up with Blessing Number One, that I’d broken the vacuum and not my back. I was too down in the dumps to come up with a Number Two.
A good cry helped the unhappy housewives on As the World Turns, so I retreated to my bedroom, hurled myself onto the chenille bedspread, and waited for the lump in my chest to squeeze past the one in my throat and unleash a stream of tears. Lee might be less angry if he found me with red-rimmed eyes and mascara smears. But I couldn’t drip a drop of liquid sadness to save my sanity, much less my marriage.
Suddenly the words of my favorite philosopher came to mind. “Oh well. I won’t think about it today. I’ll think about it tomorrow,” Scarlett O’Hara had said. I rose to return to my chores but stopped at the doorway. If I stepped into the hall, I’d see the linty cereal mess and the anorexic vacuum. How could I not think about things until tomorrow that were in plain sight today?
As I pondered the fatal flaw in Scarlett’s logic, a mysterious force propelled me toward the closet. I began heaping clothes into a suitcase.
While packing clothes for the kids, I reminded myself to iron Lee’s shirt for work the next night.
While loading Mark into the Mercury, I debated whether to fix ham or chicken TV dinners for supper.
As I drove to Larry’s school, I thought of ways to sneak the suitcases back into the house so that no one would know I had almost run away.
While waiting for Linda and Bill outside their high school, I pondered the mystery: my sanity had been shattered and my marriage destroyed by Captain Crunch.
“What happened?” Bill asked as he climbed into the car. “Did somebody die?”
“Me!” I wanted to exclaim. “I joined the living dead about ten years ago.” Instead, I donned a happy-camper smile. “I’m pulling my lucky children out of school in the middle of the day so they can start their Easter vacation early and spend it at Grandma’s.”
Whoops of joy rang out from the backseat.
While Linda, Bill, and Larry called first dibs on the beds in my childhood home, I took Mark into the kitchen. Mother sat him on the counter and handed him a beater of chocolate cake batter to lick.
“Thanks for taking the kids,” I said. “I’ll only be gone a few days.”
“Days?” she asked. Her eyes narrowed. “Is this about Lee?”
After a tense silence, she sighed. “Well, when I was no more than a slip of a girl, I left my sorry excuse for a husband in Kansas and took the train to Chicago. Back then, the city was real hard for a girl on her own with two babies in tow, so I thanked my lucky stars when another man come along and took us in. By the time I saw my mistake, I had four kids instead of two, my courage was all used up, and I’d left too much scandal in Kansas to go back. When the womenfolk got the vote, I hoped my daughter wouldn’t get stuck like back in my day. But it’s a man’s world still.”
Relief poured over me. “I was afraid you’d tell me to count my blessings.”
“If they don’t add up to a hill of beans, you need a plan.”
I wished I could hunker down in her lap for a couple of years.
As Mark waved bye-bye, the beater slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. “Batman!” he wailed, reaching toward me for comfort.
Mother waved me on. “There, there,” I heard her cluck as I left the kitchen. “Give Grandma just a minute to whip up another batch of batter for her grandbaby.”
The kids would be fine. The unanswered question was how I would fare.
At the stoplight by the Stevenson Expressway entrance, I wondered where I was going. A jam of traffic was headed toward downtown Chicago, so I went the other way. As the suburbs gave way to cornfields, I thought about my brief note to Lee. How nasty would the scene be when I returned? I counted telephone poles to distract myself for a time, and then the blissful oblivion of highway hypnosis set in.
When I emerged from my trance, a huge sign overhead was welcoming me to Missouri. For some reason, that tickled me, and a bout of giddiness ensued. “I’ll bet my lost Tupperware lids that Mrs. Kocmoud has never been to St. Louis,” I said aloud. “Never again will I be ruled by Lee or bested by G.E.!” I loved that my motto rhymed. “And no TV dinner for me tonight. It’s Kentucky Fried or die!” Those lines didn’t quite rhyme but had a nice ring. Just a few hundred miles from home, and already I was discovering new talents.
After feasting on extra crispy and a Coke, I decided that a brief vacation would probably cure whatever ailed me. I checked into the St. Louis Holiday Inn. But as I drifted toward sleep, the audacity of my dastardly deed began to sink in. Why wasn’t I home playing ‘This Little Piggy’ with Mark, listening to Larry describe the life cycle of a flea, yelling at Bill to lower the hi-fi’s volume, and watching Linda iron her hair?
When I finally fell asleep, cute burros, men in colorful sombreros, and children eating sumptuous Taco Bell feasts danced through my dreams. On awakening I remembered my mother’s tidbits about her trip to Mexico. “The Mexicans eat tacos instead of hamburgers,” she had said. “The men ride burros and wear big hats.”
I had pressed her for more details, but she had shaken her head. “To know Mexico,” she said, “you’ve got to smell it yourself.”
According to my map, that odor was a mere one thousand miles away.
As one town melted into the next, I rehearsed what I would say to Lee when I returned. “Every housewife deserves a vacation once every seventeen years, as I’m sure even Mrs. Kocmoud knows.”
It cost twenty-five cents and all of my courage to drive onto the Laredo, Texas, International Bridge. As I crossed the Rio Grande, the bridge suddenly felt like a lifeline. Only runaway wives can know the fabulous feeling of crossing the flow below and setting rubber onto foreign concrete.
I crowed with delight. I had flown my peanut-butter-and-jelly coop and landed in hot tamale heaven!
A tangle of antique jalopies and newish American cars hiccupped along the narrow streets of Nuevo Laredo. The traffic lurched forward in a giant wave, only to screech to a halt a few inches later. At each intersection, horns shrieked and blared as drivers fought to gain a hair’s edge lead in a race that seemed to be going everywhere and nowhere.
Amid the hustling, bustling car chaos, I felt more like one of Peter’s little lost boys than a bold adventurer, and a wave of uncertainty swept over me. For the first time in as long as I could remember, no one was telling me how to drive, what to do, how to be. I slammed the car door on those thoughts and joined the pedestrian hubbub.
Outside the many rainbow-colored buildings selling jewelry and electronics, dressed-to-the-teeth tourists window-shopped while beggars with haunted eyes hovered at their elbows, hoping for handouts.
Street vendors hailed me in broken English to stop, look, and buy. Runny-nosed urchins, some who looked to be about four-years old, balanced two-year-old siblings on their hips while peddling tiny boxes of chewing gum. In an hour I bought enough to rot a beaver’s teeth.
The Mexicans were obviously more touchy-feely than Americans. Parents and children, groups of teenaged girls, and even adult male friends ambled hand in hand, arm in arm, or hand on shoulder along the narrow slivers of crumbling sidewalks. Cuddly couples floated along with their arms encircling their partner’s waist. When had I begun recoiling from Lee’s touch? And how long had it been since Linda or Bill had let me hug them? Larry had declared himself too big to hold my hand at street crossings in first grade. In a few more years, Mark would announce that Mommy kisses contain cooties. Which meant I should be at home to receive his big drooly smacks.
I was fulfilling my lifelong dream to travel. I would stay put and have fun no matter how miserable I felt, darn it! And I needed to stay away for at least a week to make sure Lee got the point–which was, as best I could tell, that he would be better off loosening the chains than losing me forever.
The thought made me tremble. I searched my memory for a role model–for some other woman who had traded the tried and terrible for the desperately different. Margaret Mead came to mind. I had read her book for Linda’s social studies report. A publisher had bought Margaret’s stories about Samoa; perhaps the LaGrange Citizen would buy mine about Mexico.
I took a street-side table in an outdoor café, ordered a Coke, and pulled a pen and pad from my purse.
At the next table, a Mexican couple was consuming quantities of chile-like pickles–as if that were normal instead of just something to do on a dare. I wrote that down.
On the sidewalk, every post-pubescent male passerby paused to leer at me. I would bet my Maidenform bra that crummy casseroles and crumby carpets wouldn’t dampen their enthusiasm for a blond-haired, green-eyed, pre-menopausal woman. I wrote that down.
Across the street, a man dragged a huge hunk of ice by a thick metal chain to a soft drink stand, where he paused to hack off a large, grimy chunk. The stand’s owner paid him, chiseled off some ice slivers, plopped them into glasses, added soda, and served the drinks to his customers.
I looked at the shards in my own glass of Coke and decided I wasn’t thirsty.
Once outside the café, I followed my nose around the corner to a series of open-air shops. The smoke spewing from aging vehicles leapt the curb and mingled with the mouth-watering sidewalk scents of spicy beef and fresh tropical fruit drinks. Those odors mixed with straw baskets, leather purses and belts, clay pottery, locals’ perspiring underarms, and tourists’ perfumed necks. The brew created a quaint if overly potent smell. I would need to write all this down.
The open-air shops ringed a huge building. When I stepped inside to explore, I crashed into a great shield of eye-watering, heart-stopping, stomach-turning Smell with a capital S. This must be what mother had meant!
I hastened back outside and paused by the entrance to recover from my breath-taking encounter with Mexico in the raw. Then I took a deep breath and plunged inside the indoor market’s cavernous bowels.
When I was compelled to inhale again, the urge to flee was powerful. The fetid cologne was a potent brew of unrefrigerated meat from a thousand barnyards, fish from a thousand seas, fruit from a thousand trees, flowers from a thousand gardens, vegetables from a thousand fields, sweat from a thousand shoppers, and a thousand spices from people’s gardens.
The olfactory assault was strong enough to make me wince, though the faint scents of flowers and spices somewhat softened the blow.
As my nose adapted to the smell, I was delighted to discover that my bravery had paid off. My status as a tourist-attraction had suddenly disappeared. The vendors were too busy selling to notice me unless I was buying or looked like I might.
A wrinkled woman followed my gaze across her table of hand-carved curios to an onyx cat. “¡Ocho pesos!” she yelled, thrusting the figurine into my hands.
I checked my conversion card. Eight pesos was just sixty-four cents! But I’d heard that bargaining was the way to shop in Mexico, so I held up five fingers.
The woman roared as if I had struck her. She leapt from her chair, tore at her wiry hair, groaned, and doubled over as if my stingy offer had triggered an angina attack. “Go to Acapulco,” she screamed in English. “Go to Taxco! Never will you find this cat for five pesos! You insult me! You insult the artisan who made it! You insult Mexico!”
Embarrassed, I looked around. Amazingly, no one was paying us heed. “I–I didn’t mean to insult you,” I stammered. “I don’t have much money to spend. I guess I could pay–maybe six pesos?” I backed away in case she tried to bludgeon me.
“My children will starve on the streets!” she wailed. “With no money for medicines, my uncle will die! They will bury my mother in a pauper’s grave!” Her black eyes scrutinized my face. “Sold!” she declared.
When I opened my wallet, I saw that I was out of change. My smallest bill was a ten-peso note. I hated to expose my vast wealth. “I’m sorry about your starving children, sick uncle, dead mother, and the underpaid artisan. I don’t suppose you’d happen to have–um–change?” I asked.
She pulled a bulging wad of bills from the pocket of her tattered apron and graced me with a toothless grin. “You have very good bargaining ways. Like a Mexican, not a North American,” she said as she handed me four pesos.
I hadn’t felt so proud since I won first place in my third grade spelling bee.
At a table of used books, I bought a dusty Spanish/English dictionary. I looked up “adios” and found that it literally meant “to God.” Throughout the day, strangers had been showering me with blessings. My puny hill of beans had turned into a big mound of frijoles!
As I passed a booth filled with guitars, a vendor thrust a burnished wooden beauty into my hand. “Thees one, she is beauteeful, Mees. Handmade. She makes the beauteeful music. See?” He brushed the strings and unleashed a tinny twang.
Bill had been wanting a guitar. Maybe this one just needed to be tuned. “Is it a real guitar? Or just a toy?” I asked.
“Thees guitar, she ees for the maestros, Mees! I give you special price.” He eyed me sharply. “Six hundred pesos.”
A great bargain! But did I dare spend forty-eight dollars? “I guess not, Señor. But gracias.” I forced the guitar back into his arms and walked away.
“One momento, Mees,” he said, following me down the aisle. “Today I make special price for pretty lady. Price only for today, OK? Five hundred pesos.”
But Bill loved rock music, so he probably wanted an electric guitar. I shook my head. “No, gracias,” I said.
“OK. Just four hundred pesos. A geeft from my country to your country, Mees.”
I declined and walked away, but the vendor followed me. “How much, Mees?” he asked. “Two hundred pesos? No? OK. One hundred fifty pesos!”
I spun around to face him. “But that’s just twelve dollars! It must be a toy!”
“No comprendo. What, Mees?”
“You said the maestros play guitars like this. You lied to me!”
He knit his brow.
“I wanted a real guitar, not a toy.”
He scratched his head.
“This guitar is too cheap!” I exclaimed.
“OK! No problema, Mees. Don’t worry, I raise the price.”
A table of brightly colored flamenco dresses at another booth caught my eye. What a great souvenir for my dancer daughter! Well, maybe a lovely costume would rekindle my ex-dancer daughter’s interest in the soft shoe. I bargained the vendor’s initial fifteen-peso asking price down to seven pesos. Shopping at the market was definitely more fun than K-Mart!
Overall, Nuevo Laredo was smelly enough to make my eyes water, poor enough to make me want to cry, and dirty enough to put the fear of typhoid into me. When I got back to the car, I wrote all of that down. I’d heard that border towns attract the worst elements of two countries without giving the true flavor of either, so I decided to throw pesos to the wind and drive south. Lee could wire me money for gas if he wanted me back. And if he didn’t?
I decided to save that thought for tomorrow.
By the time I pulled into the Saltillo Holiday Inn that night, I was brain-dead from exhaustion. The clerk at the front desk was sound asleep. After awakening him, we conversed in sign language. I began by clicking my fingers to wake him up. I pointed to him and then to myself, gave an exaggerated yawn, and pointed to the rooms behind me.
Instead of handing me a registration card, the young señor smiled broadly, exposing a gleaming set of ivory choppers. Then he nodded and leap-frogged over the counter. “Sí, Señorita. ¡Sí!” he exclaimed. He picked up my suitcase and ushered me down the hall.
The room looked exactly like the St. Louis Holiday Inn. It had the same beige bedspread, the same Formica bureau, even the same seascape print hanging near the same lamp.
When the clerk closed the curtains and turned down the bedspread, I calculated how much to tip for such attentive service. When he began helping me out of my clothes, I reduced his tip to a slap on the face. Apparently my sign language had gained something in the translation.
Although I did my best to frown while showing him to the door, the unadulterated adulation of Mexican males tickled my ego. I hadn’t felt so attractive since–how long had it been? At least twenty-seven stretch marks and several dozen applications of Clairol ago.
But there was no rest for the weary. In a tortured dream that seemed to last all night, I relived the actual, blow-by-blow horrors of an incident that had happened back when I had served as a Brownie leader.
The dream began with my promise to take Linda’s troop on a picnic to a nearby park. Mrs. Kocmoud contacted the Girl Scout office to point out that I lacked the required credential to lead a wilderness expedition. During the subsequent investigation, I assured the scout administrator that the traffic sounds and smog penetrated the entirety of Bemus Woods, so it’s status as “wilderness” was suspect. The scouting administrator remained adamant. I either had to pass the required fire-building course or cancel the outing.
During the course’s final exam, I had used up an entire box of matches without generating enough heat to toast a marshmallow, much less to warm the required wiener. When I waved my perfect hot dog stick at the teacher to impress him with my whittling talent, my frigid hot dog broke free, catapulted into my cold fire pit, and scattered my tidy pile of tee-peed twigs. When they collapsed, the Kleenex I’d surreptitiously tucked inside to boost the flickers was exposed. The instructor gasped on glimpsing my illegal kindling.
“Isn’t it terrible the way some people litter?” I had clucked while retrieving the singed tissue. “I want to reassure you, Professor, that you can in good conscience pass me. My attempt to cheat failed, so you can’t accuse me of a crime I couldn’t manage to commit. Additionally, if I can’t get the charcoal going in the Bemus Woods’ grill, the girls can snack on potato chips to stave off starvation during the five-minute hike to a restaurant.”
A circling fly, which was far more attracted to the instructor’s breath than I (he’d been grading wieners all morning), landed on his lip. I offered him a stick of sugar-free Trident gum in hopes of brown-nosing my way to a D. He accepted the gum but failed me anyway.
I awoke from my nightmare in a pool of sweat, with the image of Linda’s tearful face still before me. Canceling that picnic had broken six little Brownie hearts. Linda still brought up this when listing my past crimes.
I was drifting back to sleep when a strange sensation overcame me. The room felt somehow askew, off balance, out of kilter. I sat up and peered anxiously into the darkness. I sensed the presence of something distinctly un-American in the room. I turned on the bedside lamp and looked around but didn’t see anything amiss. I decided to check the bathroom and solved the mystery the minute my toes touched Mexican tile instead of carpeting.
There was no need for vacuums on this side of the border! I caressed the cool floor with my tootsies before lying back down. Faster than I could say, “¡Viva Mexico!” I fell asleep.
May 24, 2016
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