A Lesson on the Road

Originally published in: Portland Review, Fall 2013

Puerto Vallarta is one of those glad and gamboling Mexican beach towns where everybody’s always stopping you to ask whether you’re married or not.

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Considering the substantial number of newly wedded Norteamericanos who come to sunburn themselves along Vallarta’s fabled shores, it’s a bit of a softball question – a way to crack the intercultural code and to start a conversation about what really matters: love, and social standing, and of course, commerce.

It is, in fact, the first question Emiliano and I are asked when we exit the temperate confines of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Airport.

“Esposos?” a porter inquires as he tosses our packs into a taxi hatch. Husband and wife?

“No,” we say in unison, a little embarrassed, because we aren’t even technically dating. Yet.

“Tienen suerte,” the man declares saucily. You are lucky.

He tells us he’s been married for 23 years, and I ask him what the secret to a happy marriage is.

He straightens his starched collar and thinks on it a bit.

“Never go home any earlier than you have to,” he says. “Give her all the money. And agree with whatever she says. That is the secret.”

We laugh and step into the taxi. We are headed south. I roll my window down.

The air is perfumed with cumin and cigarettes and the softest whiff of cooking fire. It’s a smell that is, for me, loaded to the gills with difficult memories.

I moved to the cigar-shaped and kind of existentially stinky island of Cozumel, Mexico, when I was 23.

I spent a lonely year there, teaching English and drinking heavily. In those days, I wasn’t exactly a luxury traveler. I survived on rice, beans and pickled carrot. I slept in a hammock. Weekends, I’d hop a ferry to the mainland and hit the clubs, then pass out in a drunken heap on the beach at sunrise.

I’d make out furiously with strangers. I’d throw beers at men who spoke lewdly to me. And I’d tell long, braggy stories about myself to all who would listen.

I was subsumed in those days by a white, boozy heat of youthful indiscretion, and all that fumbling left scant time to do battle with life’s harder questions. I definitely wasn’t stopping airport baggage handlers to ask about their marriages. Instead, I was much more earnestly concerned with hearing the sound of my own noise.

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***

It is, indeed, a wedding that has washed me up on Mexico’s other shore these many years later.

Two of Emiliano’s college friends are getting hitched at one of Vallarta’s all-inclusive resorts, and stepping out of our taxi and into the open-air lobby of Dreams Resort feels like being teleported away from Mexico proper and into a holographic rendering of some crisp-cornered travel pamphlet.

It’s the kind of place where the pork wouldn’t dare give you butt worms and cigarette ends are swept away before they’ve even hit the ground and chickens lay still on plates instead of scratching about at dawn in cranky fits of equatorial ire.

Disingenuous, yes, but so pretty to look at.

“It’s fake, like most weddings and marriages,” I snort to Emiliano as we drop our bags and orient ourselves amid a vast, pulsating constellation of beach umbrellas.

Hordes of fat tourists lay comatose at pool edge like some lumpy smack of breached jellyfish. They slurp mini-margaritas and gobble down fruit platters and palm sweaty dollar bills into the hands of waiting help.

We join them, and begin to eat with gusto.

Terra cotta pots of fragrant, bubbling carnitas. Fresh-caught fish tasting so much like ocean it makes me want to weep into my empty, buttery hands. And fried eggs with hot sauce, called “divorced eggs” down here. I shovel them – and everything else – into my mouth with an ironic flourish.

In between the eating, we skinny-dip and make love and share cigarettes and attend an unending procession of wedding dinners and cocktail hours. On the third day, we taxi back to town to eat our body weight in tacos. There, the marriage inquiries kick into high gear.

“Honeymooners!” the tour guides cry out as we stroll down the malecón. “Congratulations! Snorkel?”

One tout beckons us to a booth plastered with toothy photos of newly married Gringos tandem zip-lining through the jungle.

We decide to pretend I’m a Russian prostitute.

“I’m paying her by the hour,” Emiliano says. “We met at the pool.”

I blink prettily and spit out a few heavily accented words of English.

The tout looks bored, and it occurs to me as we walk away that there isn’t much aside from a bad foreign accent and a bare ring finger to distinguish me from the blissed out pairs surrounding me on all sides. Not this perilously close to middle age. And that feels vaguely alarming.

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***

Wedding day arrives. It’s an ornate Hindu-Sikh affair, and we cover our heads before entering the wedding hall. The bride has been hennaed to within an inch of her life. Her big, kohl-rimmed eyes glisten with happy tears as a fine cord of rope is slipped around her waist and she is led in three circles around a raised platform on which her groom sits. After she completes the third go-round, their union becomes official. The old Indian grandmas dab at their eyes with colorful hankies, and the small children leap and yell, and Emiliano and I head back to the bar.

We collapse onto two rattan chairs, their seats scooped hollow by a litany of large Gringo bottoms.

We share a sweating glass of Corona and discuss how travel feels different, now that we two seasoned backpackers are getting older.

“Your hangovers are worse,” I say.

“You have more to lose,” he says.

“You have less to prove,” I say.

And I decide that maybe it’s like this: When you’re young, your own existence is a source of endless fascination. Then a few years go by and all the yarns you’ve been so busily spinning start to ring thin and self-important in your ears. And because it’s the only thing left to do, you begin, finally, to let others have their turn speaking.

You become someone who wonders earnestly if love is really possible. Someone who occasionally attends fancy weddings at fancy resorts and occasionally wonders what it means. Someone who performs and prattles less and listens a whole lot more.

You ask the porter about his marriage. You pretend to be a Russian whore. You shut up and eat a taco. You carve out less time for foolishness, or regret.

You melt into the shadows of not-quite twilight at a resort bar and you know exactly what you are: an unmarried, not-quite-middle-aged human being drinking companionately with another human being named Emiliano as the light from a row of tiki torches dances shifting lines across your not-quite-young faces.

And you are all the while raising your nose skyward in search of that cuminy, cigaretty, cooking firey scent – the smell of a youthful idea put to flame, of something burnt and then scattered, irretrievably, back to the wind.

And you are saying, but quietly this time: Aqui estoy. Here I am.

And, finally – finally! – I am listening.

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