By Rick Skwiot
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico:
Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing
De Efe Mexicans call it, D.F., El Distrito Federal, or simply México. Licha was a chilanga, a native of the capital, a choking city of twelve million then, in 1983. I had agreed to accompany her there one weekend, hoping to get my tourist visa extended in the capital. (I should have known better. That Friday morning at the Gobernación, the department of the interior, I learned that the sole person in charge of tourist visas for the whole country had begun his weekend early.)
Licha had come to see her son, Alejandro, who lived with his lawyer father. That the father would get primary custody of a child in a Mexican divorce was not uncommon among her class. The daughter of an army general, she had married at nineteen into a wealthy family of lawyers and judges and into a life of suffocating ease and scrutiny. Servants did all the housework, cooking, and gardening. Licha was expected to travel by chauffeured car each morning to take coffee with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Then she was free to do as she pleased: to shop, to visit her mother and married (but not unmarried) girlfriends, or to see a movie. But always escorted, purportedly for her safety in the teeming city, by the chauffeur, who’d sit two rows behind her in the movie theater. Licha spent a lot of time alone, reading. She suspected that her husband, like many men of his class, kept a mistress at a casa chica somewhere in De Efe.
I never doubted Licha’s accounts of her married life, which she gave only reluctantly and with an anger in her eye that I would not have wanted focused on me. Further, she was so clueless about household chores that I figured she had to have had servants her whole life. Also, I had heard stories of marital malpractice from Mexican women of all classes. Women whose husbands would not let them smoke. Wives who, like Licha, were not allowed to travel un-chaperoned or attend classes. Women who were required to devote themselves to the maintenance of rigid traditions, fulfilling endless social obligations—christenings, quinces, birthday parties, saint’s day celebrations, weddings, and funerals—with a dizzying number of in-laws. Nor was physical abuse uncommon. All this with macho husbands who often were having sex with other women or men.
As a result, many educated and independent young Mexican women like Licha, informed and emboldened by feminist movements in Europe and America, opted out of ossified Mexican marriage. But with few educated and non-traditional men about, some turned to lesbianism. Others sought out less tradition-bound European and American men.
That Thursday afternoon I had met Licha at the hotel when she got off work, and we walked down the hill to the dusty San Miguel de Allende bus-plaza. There we caught a grimy, smoke-spewing Flecha Amarilla headed for De Efe, some five hours distant, and settled back amid campesinos and workers on their way to San Juan del Río and Querétaro.
I tried to sleep, but the lowering sun came streaming through the window of the stuffy bus. Licha and I had been out dancing the night before, locals’ night at the disco, when the usual cover charge was lifted. We’d met Martina at La Fragua at nine-thirty for drinks and near midnight walked down the hill to Laberintos. There we danced and drank until four, leaving then only because both women had to work in the morning. As a result I was, typical of Thursdays, tired and hung-over.
I tried to open the window, but the latch was missing, and I thought of The Man with the Steel Teeth. I’d heard his legend from a friend who claimed to have met him. An American CIA operative who had lost his real teeth in Vietnam, he traveled about Mexico ferreting out information on radical groups. But he had seemingly lost more than his teeth in Vietnam, for he always carried in his coat pocket a miniature tool kit of screwdriver, pliers, hammer, wire, screws, nails, nuts, and bolts. With it he tried to fix Mexico, which had been left in disrepair. He leveled beds in hotel rooms, tightened legs on restaurant tables, and reattached handles in taxis. If he had been in my bus seat he would have likely gerry-rigged a latch and opened the window that I could not.
It had been dark for hours when our bus pulled into the capital’s Terminal del Norte. We bought a taxi voucher and queued for a cab. Then, since we were headed to the far south side of the city and taxis were scarce, we were shoved into a small cab with four other passengers, along with their plastic sacks and paper-wrapped packages.
We sat in the back seat, Licha pressed against the left door, me against the right. Between us sat two stoic mestizas clutching bolsas on their laps. The taxi moved silently through the cool night. I lay my head against the glass and finally dozed. But then a raucous yelp broke inside the packed cab. I woke with heart thumping, turned and saw the woman next to me tucking the head of a rooster back inside the plastic sack on her lap. Licha looked away, hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter and turning dark red from the effort. A minute later when she had regained control, she got my attention and mouthed the words: “Only in Mexico.”
After an hour in the cramped cab we arrived at the home of Licha’s ex-sister-in-law Griselda, who lived in a new two-bedroom apartment with her husband Armando and their son Armando Junior. Though no doubt considered luxurious and commodious by the millions of Mexicans ringing the capital in shantytowns, the building seemed flimsy and a potential hazard in earthquake territory. And, like many Mexican structures, it stood uncompleted. The hallways were but partially painted and light bulbs there dangled from wires. I learned that Griselda and Armando had moved in three years earlier.
But more bothering was the smell. Somewhere in the darkened valley stood a paper mill that spread a putrid cloud across the sky day and night. I supposed one got used to it after three years.
However, once inside the apartment I forgot about it. Griselda was beautiful and charming and soon pulled me aside conspiratorially to share a flattering letter that Licha had written her about me. Armando, a mechanical engineer, brought out drawings of an invention he was working on, a wind-resistant bicycle. Armandito, just six, sat on my lap smiling and holding my hand. It was like coming home for the holidays but without all the family baggage.
Since I had not eaten since lunchtime and the women wanted to talk, Armando took me to a nearby restaurant in a new shopping mall. I guess he thought that as an American that’s what I’d want. He ordered us beer and shots of tequila and began telling me of his recent business trip to Los Angeles.
Armando could not speak English. Yet, for the benefit of the middle-class Mexicans seated around us who perhaps had not noticed that he was in the company of a gringo, he did so anyway. At least on occasion he threw in a few English words, the most Anglo-Saxon he could muster.
What he found most amusing on his American trip he had encountered at a sex shop. With tears of mirth he related his discovery of inflatable American “party dolls.”
“Primero, they inflar,…” Armando made a pumping motion. “Then…then they fook it! Ha ha ha ha! They fook it!”
Armando was nearly falling off his chair in delight over this bit of Americana. I glanced at two prim women seated next to us, but they seemed not to hear Armando or be offended by his four-letter words in this land of five-, six-, and seven-letter expletives.
While I ate, Armando drank, patting a premature paunch and stating he was on a diet. He talked more of his invention and laid out our plan for Saturday: Licha would visit her son. Armandito would go with his aunt for his piano lesson. Griselda would clean house, as was her custom on Saturdays. And Armando and I, under the guise of attending the horse races at the Hipódromo, would go to a brothel near the Plaza Garibaldi and get laid.
“Yes,” he said winking. “We go fooking.”
Next morning Licha went to visit her son, Alejandro, as planned. Armandito’s aunt picked him up for his piano lesson. Armando and I walked downstairs to his car, ostensibly on our way to the Hipódromo, Griselda following.
I had no great desire to go fooking as Armando had plotted. I was still hot for Licha. But as a writer, or at least as someone striving to become a legitimate one, I saw this as valuable research. I figured to get a short story or magazine article out of an afternoon in a De Efe whorehouse. But Griselda acted suspicious. Maybe she sensed something in Armando’s manner, or maybe she knew him only too well. Even after he and I were seated in the car and he’d started the engine, she lingered, leaning an arm on the roof and making idle chatter.
“It is such a beautiful, sunny day. I hate the thought of being inside.”
“Then why not come to the Hipódromo with us, mi amor, as I suggested.”
“No, you men want to be alone. We agreed. I would only intrude.”
“You know you are always welcome, wherever I go,” said Armando. “To the ends of the earth.”
She stepped away from the car. “No, no, no. I should stay home and work.”
“Well, whatever you think is best, my kitten.”
Griselda glanced down to Armando in the idling automobile and frowned as if she had just gotten a whiff of the paper mill. Then she looked up and squinted at the sun. “Well, it is a nice day. Maybe I will go with you after all. If you two don’t mind.”
“Of course not. We are overjoyed. Come, my sweet.”
As she walked around the back of the coupe to get in on my side, Armando looked at me and shrugged complacently. “Ni modo,” he sighed.
At the racetrack Armando insisted on getting a table in the open-air clubhouse overlooking the final turn. We ordered cocktails and la comida from a white-jacketed waiter. Another came to take our betting slips and place our wagers. For a railbird like myself it was quite luxurious, with bleached tablecloths, crystal, and polished silverware. And the track was beautiful, with pink flamingos strolling about a lake on the infield. I suspected it to be somewhat beyond Armando’s means, though he insisted on paying.
But luck was with me, and I was able to put him onto some winners going off at two-to-one and better, which more than paid for the outing. It had been the same on my previous trips to the Hipódromo. I suspected the Mexicans to be emotional, not scientific, bettors, playing lucky numbers or fetching names. Maybe some could not read The Form. Whatever, I saw to it that Armando came out in the black even after picking up the tab. Which was considerable given what he consumed.
He had apparently come off his diet. Before dinner he drank three tall cubalibres. Then he ate a meal consisting of soup, salad, roast lamb, fried potatoes, and dessert, a piece of flan, with coffee and brandy. But he was still hungry. He looked to his wife, holding his forefinger and thumb a millimeter apart.
“I’ll get just a little more, my dear. I still feel a bit empty.”
Griselda sat smoking. She glanced at Armando with heavy eyelids and went back to gazing at the flamingos and nursing a vodka-tonic. Armando called over the waiter and ordered a piece of chocolate cake. As he was finishing that we won another race. Feeling celebratory he ordered us more brandy and himself another piece of cake, lemon this time. Griselda sat and smoked.
The waiter returned with our drinks and placed the piece of golden cake, Armando’s third dessert, in front of him. Eyeing it with obvious lust he lifted his fork. As he did Griselda took a final puff on her Marlboro, reached in front of him, and pressed the cigarette out atop his cake, the red tip hissing in the yellow icing and turning black. Then she turned again to the flamingos.
Armando looked at his cake, fork frozen in midair. Then he lowered the utensil, pushed away the dessert as if uninterested, and, turning to me, shrugged. Ni modo.
That evening Licha returned to the apartment in a black mood. Her ex-husband had done his best to undermine her plans with their son, having arranged a children’s party that left her little time alone with Alejandro. She paced from kitchen to dining room as if searching for an object on which to vent her frustration. I vowed that I would not be that object and hunkered with Armando in the living room. I had seen Licha angry before, had seen her blister those who crossed her with hot harangues, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring, the trilled double Rs of her rapid Spanish sounding like machine-gun fire. Further, I had just awakened from a brandy-induced siesta and wanted to return to full consciousness in peace, with a mild kick-start from the coffee I sipped and some dark-chocolate toffee I’d bought at the track.
But just as I was reaching for the toffee, Licha stormed through the living room. She stopped abruptly before me and gazed down with eyes wide. “Chocolate toffee!” she exclaimed. “That is my favorite!”
I froze, momentarily speechless. But then I felt Armando’s light touch on my sleeve.
“¡Sí! ¡Exactamente! That is what Rick said when he bought it for you: ‘This is Licha’s favorite. I will buy it for her because she too is so sweet and delicious. I have missed her so much all day.’”
Licha gazed down at me, tears welling in her eyes, a smile playing on her lips. “¿En serio? No, you didn’t really say that, did you, Rick?”
Again I heard Armando’s words sliding over my shoulder. “I swear to God, Licha, those were his exact words.” Armando sat erect, right palm raised as if taking an oath.
I felt his hand release my sleeve. I grasped the chocolate, stood, and presented it to her with a kiss. She stared into my eyes and caressed my cheek.
As she devoured the toffee I glanced toward Armando. He winked and surreptitiously made a brief yet obscene gesture with his fist.