She didn’t remember me when we met again.
It was at a tiny club in San Cristobal de Las Casas. Her boyfriend, Lucas, had offered to buy me a Bohemia, and in exchange I was enduring a well-rehearsed diatribe on the evils of NAFTA. That’s when she sat down. Her name, it turned out, was Marietta, with a soft “a” – Mar, like the sea in Spanish. She was taller than I remembered, muscular, and her eyes were a pale, stony gray. Her dirty blonde dreadlocks were tied back loosely, and she had an unconventional, audacious kind of beauty.
There was small talk. In the background a local band belted out reggae covers of Pink Floyd and Nirvana. She told me she was a filmmaker, and I feigned familiarity with her PBS documentary. I asked her where she was from.
“Pretty much everywhere,” she replied. “How about you?”
“Everywhere else,” I said.
“Tyler was born here,” Lucas interjected, apparently to impress Marietta, “and he went to Berkley.” The latter fact was meant to emphasize some special connection between us, as if sharing an Alma Mater were like sharing a placenta. I hadn’t told Lucas that I was a dropout, and therefore not an alumnus but merely an illegitimate son. I was on my third complimentary beer, and there was no need to disappoint the family.
Marietta manufactured a façade of keen interest. “So you grew up around here?” she wanted to know, or didn’t want to know but asked anyway, with a voice like an NPR deejay. Over her shoulder the band was playing Goodbye Blue Sky.
“I left when I was a few months old,” I said.
Marietta cocked her head, her dreadlocks rearranging themselves, her forced smile melting into an authentic grin: “Just like that? Packed your crib and pacifier and headed out?”
I laughed, self-consciously. “I guess.”
Marietta lit a cigarette off the candle at the center of the table while Lucas retrieved a fresh round of drinks. She leaned back, fixing me with her prescient, gray-eyed gaze, while the smoke escaped her lips and formed a trembling bridge to her nose before being sucked away. A protracted moment passed in mutual silence. I tried to break eye contact, not knowing if I’d succeeded when I realized that I was staring again, or was still staring without ever having stopped. I couldn’t tell if there was recognition in her eyes, from the night in Cielo Azul, or if I simply wanted there to be.
“So,” she said finally, “why are you here? In Chiapas? Because it’s usually one of two things,” she said. “So are you here to find something, or are you here to lose it?”
“I guess it’s a little of both.”
Seven weeks before he met Marietta that night in the club, Tyler was back in Phoenix explaining to his parents that he wouldn’t be graduating in the Class of ’95. To soften the blow he said that he just had some credits to make up in the following term. He didn’t tell them he had taken incompletes in all his classes, with no intention of returning to school; he hadn’t seen the inside of a lecture hall in months. He also didn’t say that he decided to drop out the day that Selena (who they did not know existed) sent him an email with an ailing prognosis for their already moribund relationship.
It was an impressive document, entirely persuasive and rhetorically bludgeoning, complete with subject headings and bullet points. It was a fusillade of her most attractive qualities – her grace, wit and brutality – scored into the glowing, florescent flesh of his laptop screen. He felt like he should storm into her office and demand an explanation. But he didn’t. Instead they met that afternoon at her town-home to talk it over, and the clean break her letter had demanded shattered into a thousand tiny shards, the friction between them melting her logic until they melted into each other. Afterward, exposed amidst the detritus of clothing and broken promises, they agreed to stop seeing one another.
When he left, she only wanted to know one thing: Did you ever really care? He thought of her letter, in all its ruthless accuracy: You’re not passionate…about me…about anything…I am insignificant to you.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could say.
Tyler left school, and Selena (or more accurately, they left each other) because of her insight: He didn’t care, about anything in his life. It wasn’t nihilism. Things mattered, even if they didn’t matter to him. And it wasn’t precisely apathy. Everything Tyler did felt irrelevant – he felt irrelevant. He was on a trajectory toward the realization of his own mediocrity and some small but decisive part of him managed to be offended. So he quit. School. Everything.
His parents were supportive. He needed some time, a little perspective. It was to be expected. It was like when he was still a child. When Tyler was nine he became infatuated with the piano. So his parents bought him one. Today it collects dust in the living room and he can’t remember a single chord. It’s lacquered top is a pedestal for flower vases and magazines. It doubles as a buffet for dinner parties.
Tyler couldn’t bring himself to stay with them. He had no reason to leave, and leaving for no reason appealed to him. The morning after he broke the news about graduation, following a quiet family brunch, he got in his Subaru and drove southbound through the Sonora Desert until the metropolis of glass and steel gave way to sage and saguaro.
Marietta invited me back to their hotel with them. When we left the club we were accosted by young boys selling cigarettes and shoeshines, and younger boys hawking chiclets of gum. After a week all their faces were familiar. The oldest was Chuy, whose grandmother peddled pandulces in the market. She brought her family with her from the Yucatan. Omar’s mom made tamales to sell in front of hotels. His father and uncle picked pecans in Texas. Jaime, his younger brother, sold candy and went to school sometimes.
Marietta asked to buy some Marlboros from Chuy, the American kind she explained, not the Mexican ones that stain your fingers. I bought some gum from Jaime, who had trained his visage into an astonishing parody of wretchedness as he cried out, “Chicle. Señor, chicle.” It was two a.m. The music in the cantinas was recently extinct.
San Cristobal was like a spiral, all roads descending to the cathedral, gravity propelling its residents toward God, and we followed them until we stumbled onto a street with a carnicería, two dentist’s offices, and a half dozen Coca Cola signs, where the hotel entrance was bunkered beneath a roll-down steel door. Lucas knocked hard on the door, and the innkeeper appeared.
Their suite was scattered with film paraphernalia: A boom, movie cameras, a DAT recorder, a projector facing a cracked, bare wall. Marietta motioned me to have a seat on the bed. Lucas was opening a small package of pink butcher paper. The projector clicked. Its wheels turned. The lights were out and the wall was a grainy, polychrome flicker. Marietta lit a cigarette while Lucas lit a freshly rolled joint. He offered me a hit, and I took it and passed it on. On the wall a crowd had assembled: Hundreds of fists shot up and down.
Lucas was talking about legalizing marijuana. As if it were up to him. (Drunks may be talkative or taciturn, but all stoners are philosophers.) Marietta said something about rebellion. The fists blurred together as the camera retreated. Some of them were holding signs.
Lucas was full of rhetorical questions: “When’s the last time a guy got stoned and beat up his wife?” he said, fingers crinkling cigarette papers. The joint traveled from hand to hand, carving a smoky triangle in the air between us. I was reading the signs on the wall. A little boy held a poster that read Tierra y Libertad.
“When’s the last time a girl got gang-raped by potheads?” Lucas said. He tried to pass me a joint, but I already had one. So did he. In fact, he had two joints stuck between the fingers of his right hand and he was sucking through the top of his fist. I felt dizzy. There were other signs, other messages. Paz. Justicia. Lucas was trying to hold in the smoke as he talked: “Did you know that pot used to grow all over North America?”
Marietta said something like “parade,” but that wasn’t right. It made it sound like they should be throwing candy. A banner read Para Todos Todo, Nada Para Nosotros. The fists and signs belonged to a mob that filled the streets. I glanced at the window. Those streets weren’t far from the hotel.
“It used to grow like a weed,” Lucas said. Then he cracked up. Pale blue smoke exploded from his mouth as he choked a giggle. “Dude,” he said, “weed!” His eyes were glassy and half-lidded. He took a last soporific drag and closed them.
Marietta walked in front of the projector. A sign on her stomach bore the wavering image of Subcommandante “Marcos,” the central figure, part fox and part coyote, bandit and trickster, of Zapatista folklore. In the picture he was smoking a pipe through his ski mask. Although only his eyes were visible he still managed to look smug.
Marietta crouched to remove the roaches from Lucas’s fingers, words crawling over her, tattooing her arms and torso. Land and Liberty. Peace. Justice. Everything For Everyone, Nothing For Ourselves. She tossed the roaches into an ashtray, brushing a cinder from Lucas’s shirt and stamping it out on the paisley carpet. When’s the last time you saw a stoner die in the burning bed of a Mexican hotel room?
The air was a sultry miasma of alcohol, dope, and cigarettes, and what I needed was oxygen. I crossed the room to the balcony. Marietta trailed behind me, joint in hand. Below the landing, out on the street, a drunk slept on cobblestones while children skillfully picked his pockets.
“Not so much,” I said, reluctantly accepting a medicinal hit from the proffered joint, glancing back at the flickering wall. “Is that what you’re here for? Is that your story?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “It’s theirs, really. I’m only here to film it.”
“Then what?” I said, staring down at the drunk on the sidewalk. I wondered if the pickpockets grow up to be drunks, losing their wallets to newer, younger pickpockets. Supply creating demand. “It’s not like it sits on a shelf,” I said, “it’s edited, right? Then broadcast. Packaged. Sold. You’re not just a witness.”
“True. And false. You’re a witness, yeah?” She was watching me watch the wall. “You just saw something that I saw. You witnessed something that I witnessed. That’s what I do. I show people things. I create witnesses by telling stories that someone else told me. On a good day, anyway. Sometimes I only create voyeurs.” She sucked at her cigarette. “It’s a subtle distinction,” she added, smirking, exhaling, “witness, voyeur. Storyteller.”
“You can’t just tell somebody else’s story,” I said. The nausea was making me argumentative.
“No one can tell someone else’s story,” she said, wearing a smile that from anyone else would pass as condescending, “and no one does.”
The balcony was spinning and I gripped the rail. I was thinking that it wasn’t as simple as all that, or that it was much simpler, I wasn’t sure which. My esophagus felt like the inside of a flushing toilet, and I pitched forward with a hot liquid heave. On the street the drunk flinched away from the regurgitated splash, leaping to his feet and shaking a fist as the pickpockets scattered. Marietta laughed.
Tyler plunged through the border into Nogales, La Fronterra, unpacking at gunpoint, producing papers, repacking – only to be searched again and released (for a small “fee”) by the Federales the next day. Borders within borders. Guayamas. Obregon. Driving furiously. Nights. Days. Deserts and beaches. Stopping rarely. Speaking only to pay for gas or order food. Mazatlan. Guadelajarra. Motel rooms redolent with smoke and Mescal. Prematurely aborted late night phone calls. Aguascalientes. Guanajuato. And so on.
Mexico City, the place that “Mexico” means for Mexicans, was merely a blip in his consciousness. A city containing more Mexicans than the rest of the country bearing its name, where men breathed fire on the street corners for money, and no one stopped for red lights after dusk. He was compelled to leave nearly as soon as he had arrived, not by xenophobia but its opposite, by the fear that, underneath it all, everything was still the same.
Creaking knuckles fastened to the steering wheel, eyelids like sandpaper and a bare, blistered foot against the gas pedal. An enervated moon expired on the horizon. Mornings like this the light played tricks, nascent fingers of sun conspiring with fatigue, prestidigitating in his vision, changing roads to boiling rivers and trees to plumes of smoke. He pulled off the road, miles short of the next town, to rest his eyes.
The asphalt rippled in the sun like a carpet of migrant tarantulas. When Tyler was a child he was told (and he believed) that tarantulas were born inside cactuses, growing and eating their way out until they exploded in needles and splinters, and all the spiders spilled across the Arizona highways. He fell asleep, thinking of volatile swarms of arachnids tearing their way through their fleshy incubators, and of derelict cactus skeletons, bleached and rotting; alternately he dreamt that he was a tarantula and a cactus.
The arrangement was simple: Marietta needed a translator and I needed something to actually care about. With six years of academic Spanish and a year abroad in Spain I was extensively qualified for the former. (I have an early memory of an old man trying to speak to me in Spanish at the grocery, and the startled look on his face when he saw my mother, with her glacial blue eyes; I felt embarrassed for him and I have been overcompensating ever since.) For her part, Marietta – lucid, wise, and, for all of that naïve, an improbable combination of tenderness and salacity, an unlikely muse and accidental mentor – seemed just as qualified to be the latter.
We weren’t drawn together so much as we collided, and everyone around us drifted away in the wake. (Lucas took up with an Italian human rights activist, but stayed on as soundman with no hard feelings.) We shared an implicit, semiconscious knowledge of the nature of each other’s hidden wounds, and our proximity to one another was a balm. It was not about sex, although that was one theme. On hot nights we would lie together on the floor, and I would use my fingernails to trace a path from her extremities, where the color of her limbs retreated into her etiolated torso, to where it ultimately concentrated in a few dark and private places. Afterward, in the small hours, she was given to conversation.
“If you could speak with anyone right now, living or dead,” she once asked, “who would it be?”
“I’m talking to her.”
“You know what I mean.”
I thought for a moment. “My father, I guess.”
“Which is he?”
Without certainty of what I meant I said I didn’t know. Jagged lightning unfurled from the sky like lines on a map, mumbled thunder a tardy afterthought. The rain cut the heat with a sizzle, and world smelled like clay.
“You know, we met before,” I said.
“Of course,” she said, as if it were a tautology, her face inscrutable. We clung to each other languorously, while the scrim of night fell on San Cristobal and the lightning described constellations, shooting from sky to ground and, every so often, back again. As if in retaliation. Marietta stared dreamily, puffing smoke toward the ceiling.
“Tyler,” she said, her brow furrowed, her voice pensive, “sooner or later it’ll have to end.” I assumed she meant us. Neither of us harbored delusions of longevity for this relationship. In truth we knew very little about each other. At that moment, I couldn’t even think of her last name. I simply nodded.
Increasingly, it wasn’t only Marietta that I cared for, but the work she was doing, the work I facilitated. I began to entertain the idea that we were making a difference, though what was different remained obscure. It felt like nothing really had to be the way it was, as long as there was someone to notice, someone to shine a light and draw attention. We were not alone in that respect. From all over the world people came to report on the state of affairs in Chiapas: Journalists, activists, professors – self-styled revolutionaries. Behind the tortillería a cyber café opened to expedite their information traffic.
On the street everyone became a potential rebel, a fact not unnoticed by the Mexican government. Stories of violence were infrequent, declining since the uprising itself, but nearly every day the EZLN was news. They were quoted in La Jornada, their views were debated on radio and television, and they issued press releases from their website. Tracts written by Subcommandante “Marcos” were openly read, and interviews with him were broadcast from secret locations. In the market you could buy Zapatista cigarette lighters, headbands, and ballpoint pens. Encomiastic graffiti materialized on the street corners.
It was a tourist industry of sorts, travelers hoping to become a part of some historic moment. Chuy and Jaime hustled for a man who made money by introducing gueros to “Zapatistas” – masked accomplices staged in the nearby jungle. Afternoons I would stroll through the zócalo with the two of them, buying them greasy tacos and pulpy guava juice from the vendors, and they would pontificate on the legendary gullibility of gringos. As we passed the stall that sold Subcommandante “Marcos” T-shirts they would stop and stare. Their eyes were lionizing. Longing.
The sign read “Bienvenidos a Cielo Azul.” As Tyler climbed stiffly from his road-worn car, greeted by the camp’s proprietor, thick air flooded his nostrils under a jungle canopy dense enough to choke the eponymous blue sky. But it was less a camp than a commune: Platforms suspended from trees, silk hammocks, public showers, and a total absence of privacy. Cielo Azul was brimming with international wayfarers, new-agers, and deluded adventurers, attracted by its proximity to the pre-Colombian ruins and its remoteness from anything resembling civilization. In the evenings they held séances and drumming circles. At night they gathered in groups to profane indigenous religions with their own shallow interpretations.
Rest, initially, was unattainable. Inhibited by the embrace of his hammock, Tyler would lay inert as the rain filtered through the mass of puckering trees and never hit the ground, discomfited by the rustle of leaves, the buzz of insects, the puerile cries of not-so-distant howler monkeys. Without awareness of sleep, he would awaken, aching from stillness.
Eventually he was reoriented. He became more social, and his voice, tenuous at first from the previous week’s silence, began to sound normal to him again. He befriended felons, dropouts, and expatriates, spending hours with them at the cantina. Tyler remained at Cielo Azul after his visa expired, until the night that he saw the woman with blonde dreadlocks.
Rumors circulated about Lucas’s disappearance, each more ridiculous than the last, alternately asserting that he had been arrested, had joined the Zapatistas, or had been killed by government death squads. (It wasn’t just paranoia, the Mexican constitution prohibited visitors from expressing their own political opinions; the consequences were less certain.) For her part, Marietta suspected he had deserted us for a job in the States. In any case, we carried on without him.
Every day we traveled farther, along highways patrolled by Mexican soldiers armed with American assault rifles, to tiny Mayan villages in the Lacandon Jungle, where the Tzotzil women watched the children kick deflated soccer balls while their fathers served tepid liquor as thick as mucous from plastic buckets. We brought them food, water, and medical supplies, staying until dusk, talking to anyone who could speak Spanish and recruiting them to translate for those who didn’t.
At night we would depart, driving back to San Cristobal, taking turns at negotiating the tortuous mountain road. Which is where we were when the brakes gave out.
They undressed by the stream, entering the tent that served as a makeshift sweat lodge. The flap closed. A splash. Hiss. Squeezed between strangers, Tyler felt the steam rise in thick sheets. There was chanting, recitation, a murmured stream of dubious litanies. The air grew too hot to breath. Soon all that separated them was sweat.
Hours before, Tyler was sitting in the cantina talking to people with forgotten names, another anonymous encounter.
“Why’d you drop out?”
“Wrong thing, I guess,” more thinking out loud than speaking. “Or I was the wrong guy.”
“What did you want to be?”
“Lawyer,” a touch of irony in his voice. “My dad has a practice.”
“Gave up on justice?”
“Wasn’t really about that.”
The discussion turned to college exploits. Someone was talking about having a tryst with a professor, and Tyler thought of Selena with a pang of guilt. At the next table a woman caught his eye, wearing crude dreadlocks fastened in a tattered scarf. “Where you goin’ after this?” someone was asking Tyler. He wondered when they meant, exactly.
“Don’t know,” Tyler said absently, watching the woman, “You?”
“Chiapas. You been there?”
“I was born there,” he saw the raised eyebrows. “I’ve never been back, though.” At that moment the woman looked up: A brunette at Tyler’s table was inviting her to join them later.
“Adopted,” Tyler answered mechanically.
The woman at the next table glanced at Tyler, her slate-gray eyes locking on his, and he saw something there, something fierce and secret, like a faded scar. The table grew quiet and he looked away, searching for a new subject: “What’s in Chiapas?”
“The revolution, man. That’s where it’s all happening.”
After awhile the conversation disintegrated and Tyler started to leave. The brunette caught his arm, glancing at the woman with dreadlocks, then back at Tyler: “You know, you can come too, tonight. If you want.”
So here he was. In a sweat lodge. Burning. Suffocating. Contemplating the irony. Americans – privileged, all of them, sons and daughters of the establishment – but alienated, yearning for something authentic, something meaningful, and too lazy to invent their own rituals. They were pathetic. And offensive. But Tyler loved their naïveté. Because he was one of them. Except he wasn’t.
He recalled a fragment of the penultimate argument with Selena, a week before the email:
“Look in the mirror,” she screamed.
“What are you talking a – ?”
“ – Cállete! Look in the fucking mirror.”
Tyler looked, and saw himself looking back: Thick, black hair, sepia tone skin, high cheekbones, bottle-brown, almond eyes – like hers.
“Sooner or later,” she said, “you’re going to have to stop hating what you see.”
Her exquisite face dissolved in the darkness as the heat scorched his lungs. It was pain, at first, stimulation of every nerve ending, galvanizing and visceral. The tent grew quiet, breathless. His thoughts perished, stillborn, and nothing else existed – solipsism. Silence.
I was pretending to sleep, because I liked to look at her when she didn’t notice. Ribbons dangled from her hair where a village girl had tried in vain to braid it. Her eyes were on the road, but glazed, distant, the way she looked sometimes when I found her alone.
We were in neutral. Coasting. I glanced at the speedometer: Sixty-five. And climbing.
“Marietta,” I called out but she didn’t hear me. Wasn’t listening.
She looked at the speedometer. Eighty-five. She hit the brakes. We lurched forward. Something grinded, snapped. There was a feeling in my gut like falling through a trap door. We weren’t slowing down.
I grabbed the emergency brake, and we spun, the tires leaving the ground. Then my head cracked against the window and everything went black.
Tyler emerged from the tent, gasping for air and collapsing in the inclement stream under a washed out, thumbnail moon. The fire was reduced to embers, and the air was pregnant with its ashes. Thoughts trickled into the vacuum of his mind, sensation returning to his body in lambent waves, and the monkeys cried out in the distance. Somewhere beside him a woman screamed back, something guttural, something primal, and then the others joined in, howling at the moon like lunatics and lycanthropes.
Opposite Tyler the woman with dreadlocks knelt on the shore, cool wind dimpling the sinewy topography of her back. He reached for her reflection in the water, but it broke under his touch; he closed his fist, trying to hold on to a handful as it slipped through his fingers.
We’d been there for hours. It was late, but I couldn’t let myself sleep. Marietta thought I had a concussion, and I believed her: my head throbbed where she put the bandage. Beyond the shattered windshield was nothing but hazy, broken foliage, and somewhere beyond that was the road, quiet and desolate. On the radio a mariachi crooned his despair.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I held her close. “It’s not your fault.”
I thought I heard a car coming, but the noise died before it got close. We sat still for a while, hoping to hear it again. But there was nothing. We started talking to stay awake.
“You never actually told me why you came here,” Marietta said.
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully, but it didn’t seem to satisfy her. “Well. I guess because I felt like a bystander where I was. Like my life was a wreck, and I was just blocking traffic to get a good look. Only it wasn’t really that interesting to look at.”
“You left because you were bored?”
“Not at all. I left because I was boring. I couldn’t even stand listening to myself. I thought I’d start over at the beginning. Sounds kind of stupid, I guess.”
“I think you did good,” she said, with a generous smile.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“I lied to you. I never directed films. Not really.”
“Seriously?” My astonishment was evident.
“A commercial, once. And a student film,” she said. “I went to film school and everything. I worked for people. Played the game for five years. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t be someone else’s megaphone. I wanted people to hear me. But everyday I’d still go back to work. I felt like I was my own prisoner. Sounds kind of whiny, I guess?”
“No, I get it,” I said, because I did.
“I had to escape before I fucking killed myself,” she said.
“Killing myself didn’t work,” she said, meeting my eyes, “so I tried the other thing.”
I didn’t know what to say. After a moment I asked: “How’s that working?”
“Honestly? Sometimes I still feel like I made the wrong choice.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Thanks,” Marietta said, taking my hand in hers, and we stayed like that for a while. The jungle throbbed with ambient noise. The mariachi wailed his lament. Suddenly, she sat up, shutting off the radio.
Marietta put a finger to her lips. I heard voices coming from the road. I could make out dark, human shapes. A flashlight flicked on. I thought of everyone that disappeared from the villages, of Lucas, but also of the rebels, armed and hiding in the jungle.
Now they were close enough that I could see the guns.
“Who is it?” I said, but they didn’t answer and neither did Marietta. She turned and kissed me, tender, painful, like a fresh bruise. Then it was over.
They tore us out of the car at gunpoint, blinding us with flashlights. One of them ordered the others to search the car. I looked at Marietta, each of her arms held by men in camouflage. I could see their uniforms now, their government insignias.
“Qué es esto?” One of them said, holding up the camera.
“Don’t touch that!” Marietta yelled, as he pulled open the film compartment, yanking out a long ribbon of celluloid. I was trying to tell her to stay calm, that it wasn’t worth it, that we had miles of footage at the hotel, but she didn’t hear me. She freed a fist, and it connected with his face, and all at once the barrel of every gun was pointed at her head.
Everyone froze in place.
The man with the camera got up, shattering it against the nearest tree. He grabbed Marietta and threw her over the hood, but before I could do anything I was there too, face to face with her, a gun in my back. “Míra,” one of them said, tossing a bag of marijuana on the hood beside us, but whether it came from her pocket or his, I’ll never know.
I thought of the expired visa in my pocket, of the bribe I’d have to pay. I’d have to call someone, my parents, Selena. I knew they wouldn’t kill us, but otherwise there were no guarantees. We’d have to leave. It was over.
My eyes met Marietta’s and I realized what I could see she already knew: This was the last time we’d ever see each other.
She didn’t remember him when they met again…