The Illegals: On befriending (and abandoning) a stray dog in Mexico

Mexico. It’s no place for a lonely soul. Back in 2004, I found myself marooned on an island there for 11 months in the company of a rather motley bunch.

There were the not-quite-local Mexicans, all of them mostly all connected in some way to the booming tourism industry, and none seeming to care much for my presence.

Puppy at the Pizza Stand - Erin J. Bernard

Puppy at the Pizza Stand – Erin J. Bernard

Mexico. It’s no place for a lonely soul. Back in 2004, I found myself marooned on an island there for 11 months in the company of a rather motley bunch.

There were the not-quite-local Mexicans, all of them mostly all connected in some way to the booming tourism industry, and none seeming to care much for my presence.

Mexico. It’s no place for a lonely soul. Back in 2004, I found myself marooned on an island there for 11 months in the company of a rather motley bunch.

There were the not-quite-local Mexicans, all of them mostly all connected in some way to the booming tourism industry, and none seeming to care much for my presence.

There was the steady swarm of sunbaked cruisers who poured off the port ships and into our little town each afternoon and bought me free drinks with their hard-earned vacation pesos.

And then there were the expats. By anyone’s standards, most of them were pretty irretrievable human beings.

A cross section:

There was Morgan, a smarmy Cypriot dive instructor with whom I had a brief, ill-fated fling during my first weeks on the island and spent the next 11 months glaring at.

There was Daniel, a 40-something Quebecois who wore threadbare linens, struggled with chronic bouts of malaria and narcissism, and had the frizzled, leathery countenance of an aging rocker.

Daniel from Quebec - Erin J. Bernard

Daniel from Quebec – Erin J. Bernard

There was Daniel’s teenaged French-Canadian girlfriend, whose name I no longer recall. She’d run away from home at age 14 and suffered from a severe case of bipolar disorder, presenting with regular manic episodes that left her catatonic and writhing around on the floor of the bathroom in their tiny apartment.

There was Marisol, a deeply religious Spanish-Italian woman with sluttish makeup and a half-healed jaw, who’d come to Cozumel to escape her abusive ex-husband.

There was Dannie, a saucy Brit who’d recently been fired from a cruise ship bartending gig after he got drunk and invited guests to come behind the bar and prepare their own cocktails. In the end, he was probably my only real human friend on the island, mainly because he was the only one willing to overlook my long-distance boyfriend and my tendency to black out at frequent interval.

There was a fat blonde woman from Canada who worked in a jewelry store, and a shell-shocked Gulf War veteran named Joe who’d come to the island to drink himself to death, and a 39-year-old disc jockey named Michael who was always almost accidentally getting his 19-year-old Mexican girlfriend pregnant.

Calle - Erin J. Bernard

Calle – Erin J. Bernard

And then there was Puppy. Who was a dog. Daniel from Quebec’s dog, technically, although, like so many relationships on the island, theirs appeared to be forged from convenience. Daniel gave Puppy the name we all called him by, fed him off his own dinner plates and curried the pup’s scruffy neck until he collapsed to the ground in ecstasy. In return, Puppy often trailed Daniel on his jaunts around the island, a squat and loyal guardian.

In the fullness of time, I came to think of Puppy as my dog, too. He’d find me in the afternoons, when classes let out and both Daniel and Dannie were busy with other things. Together, we went wandering down the gravel roads of the island, and I’d go looking for a snack for us to eat down on the malecon. Like the rest of them, Puppy had a few conditions for me. He didn’t approve when I fraternized with strange men, and he couldn’t stand it when I fed him anything with pork in it: pepperoni made him growl, and he turned his wet puppy nose up at ham sandwiches or anything containing chorizo.

Usually, I’d buy us two slices of cheese pizza from a little stand owned by a handsome pair of Argentine brothers. Then, we’d go sit in the shade of a large, hideously ugly eagle statue near the sand, and we’d eat our meal.

Puppy drew many admirers, both local and foreign, whenever we wandered the main drag, but his brand of affection didn’t always go over well. He popped doggy boners with unsettling ease, especially when pretty women bent down to fawn over him. This made me giggle, but it made most of the tourists uncomfortable, and they usually departed quickly. Puppy’s loyalties were tough to pin down. He sometimes took an instant and very audible disliking to a new person for no reason I could discern.

Cozumel Plaza - Erin J. Bernard

Cozumel Plaza – Erin J. Bernard

He had friends and he had enemies, and the two jumped camps without warning, but Puppy was constant with me. I fancied that it was because he could sense how alone I truly was, how young and in trouble and in desperately in need of a guide.

A fleabag sentry, he trotted ahead of me along those graveled roads countless tropical evenings, snarling angrily at anyone and everyone who crossed our path.

We’d amble past young lovers groping in the bushes, sweaty construction workers lounging in hammocks, middle-aged white women with sunburned shoulders and seashell jewelry.

If anybody questionable got too close, Puppy let loose with a series of high-pitched barks.

“Stay the hell away from us,” he’d say in his doggy snarl. “We don’t need you.”

He’d walk me all the way to the gate of my home, then he’d wait for me to unlock the door and shut it behind me. When I was safely inside, I’d hear his little toenails click away down the street, back in the direction of town. To where or whom, I never knew. To Daniel, perhaps, or some other island resident who’d also claimed him for their own.

Weeks sometimes passed between our meetings. I thought of him in those protracted absences probably about as much as he thought of me, though I did look for him along the sides of our favorite roads, and I sometimes found him, camped out beneath a squat palm, his tongue lolling and listing in the equatorial heat, his eyes glazed. His belly always looked full.

Carritos - Erin J. Bernard

Carritos – Erin J. Bernard

One afternoon that spring, I found Puppy in the plaza central. He was camped out beneath Daniel, who was seated on a park bench, gripping a ratty briefcase and scowling. Underfoot, Puppy was panting in the pathetic sliver of shade cast by Daniel’s crooked shadow. They both looked thirsty.

Daniel was still in his “work uniform,” which consisted of a sad black tie and a sun-bleached sports coat. Among his other various rackets, Daniel sold time-shares to the inebriated tourists who poured out of the cruise ships and onto the maritime paseo most days of the week.

Que pasa? I asked.

He loosed his dime-store tie and scowled some more.

I’m being deported. New immigration asshole is clearing out Illegals. Watch out.

Daniel messed with a pack of cigarettes, offered one out to me. I lit it and smoked. He went on.

I tried to apply for a work visa and now these fucks are kicking me out. Well. That’s what I get for telling the fucking truth.

I watched his cheap beatnik sunglasses slick down the bridge of his nose. He pushed them up angrily.

Now I have to go and those motherfuckers [he gestured then dismissively in the direction of a swathe of gilt-framed jewelry shops down by the sparkling ocean] get to stay. Fucking animals.

I squatted down and Puppy offered me his bare, warty belly. I rubbed it. And I thought about us being Illegals. Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that I even was an illegal immigrant in Mexico, or an “undocumented worker,” if you weren’t being a dick about it. The idea seemed strange – that I had snuck out of the United States and down to Mexico to find work. I was a sin papel.

Of course, I was no ordinary Illegal. I was a teacher at a private school for rich Mexican kids, and I was only without papers because my boss hadn’t bothered to secure them when she hired me because she didn’t think it was “worth the hassle.” I was paid each month entirely in cash, but I earned double the salary of the Mexican teachers, girls who had worked for years to earn legit certifications. I knew they knew. I knew they resented it. And I knew it probably had more to do with why most people on the island seemed to dislike me than any of us cared to admit. At that point, I had an enormous wad of U.S. dollars tucked away in a sock in the closet of the concrete, one-room cabana I called home, a dog for a best friend, and four months left on my contract. What was I doing here?

Erin - Taken by a Friend

Erin – Taken by a Friend

You want to stay, keep your mouth shut, Daniel warned me.

Then he commenced a 20-minute, four-cigarette tirade about his ex-wife, a Canadian “top model” whom he divorced after she gave birth to their first child and sunk into a deep post-partum depression that he found insufferably annoying. He entertained me with impressions of her standing in front of a mirror, examining her haggard features and crying uncontrollably. Then he complained for awhile about his upcoming nuptials to his bipolar teenage girlfriend, who had ordered a “very ugly, muy fea” Indian-style wedding dress that he hated, and whose medications were costing him way too much money.

I never saw Daniel again after that day. I suppose he was deported along with his crazy girlfriend, as were the Argentine pizza makers and the fat Canadian woman. Immigration never came for me, and life on the island rolled languidly forward. Puppy and I continued our friendship until July, when the school year ended and I quit my job and flew home. I never really said goodbye. Not to Puppy, and not to anyone else. One day I just wasn’t there anymore.

That next fall, a hurricane tore through the Caribbean and the island was evacuated. In the newsreels, good portions of its largest and only city was several feet underwater. Had Puppy survived the deluge? Maybe he’d paddled for it, or stowed away on the last ferry out of town, or trussed himself to some floating piece of debris and rode the currents all the way in to Playa Del Carmen. Or maybe he’d waited out the floodwaters atop some some secret island hovel known only to him?

Probably, though, realistically, he hadn’t made it. I pictured his proud doggy body, his stout belly, and his coat, which he always kept so improbably shiny and clean, despite his lowly station in life. I pictured Puppy dead, floating among the colorful detritus of a quick-abandoned island, and I hated myself for not being the kind of person who would bring a stray dog home from Mexico. For not being the sort of person who was loyal to a fault, who needed to prove something about the world being good, or at least containing some measure of good.

I had no such thing to prove. Young and selfish as I was, the thought of rescuing anyone but myself from that lonely island had never occurred to me. For his part, I’m certain Puppy never expected it, either. And that’s exactly why I wish I’d taken him with me.

By now, I am much older. If Puppy were alive, and here with me, he’d be much older too: a canine senior citizen, gray and grizzled, far into his doggy dotage. If Puppy were alive, and here with me, I’d feed him cheese pizza every night and I’d rub his fat, full belly, and I’d thank my fleabag sentry for trotting beside me all those hard-gravel nights, down all those hard-gravel roads. For keeping me safe as long and as much as he could.

I wish I’d taken him with me.

Playa - Erin J. Bernard

Playa – Erin J. Bernard

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