Memory Writers Network interview

Spiritual memoirs, interview with author Rick Skwiot

by Jerry Waxler

During the late 60s, when I was almost finished college, I wondered what life was going to be like out in the world. One source of inspiration came from books like Henry Miller’s sexy novels, Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus. Miller fled the United States to live in France, learning how to write and commune with the locals. W. Somerset Maugham wrote about a different type of expatriate adventure in Razor’s Edge, more of a spiritual quest than a drunken carousal. My own search for truth took me to California, which in the days of the hippies did sometimes feel like a foreign country.

Now decades later, I want to tell the story of my escape and self-discovery. To help me learn how to do that, I read memoirs. I recently finished an excellent one by Rick Skwiot who in the 80s went to Mexico to find a truer aspect of himself than he was able to find in corporate America. His quest was somewhere between the fast living of Henry Miller and the soul searching of Somerset Maugham, and contained some of the elements of my own travels. It’s too late to interview Maugham, Miller, or the other world travelers who haunted my imagination during my formative years. But Rick Skwiot is alive and willing to talk about the writing of “San Miguel Allende.”. Here is the first of several parts of an interview in which I ask him about writing the memoir.

Jerry Waxler: When did the story of your memoir, “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing” take place?

Rick Skwiot: I first went to San Miguel in 1983. The book spans the next few years, when I was living in San Miguel and returning to St. Louis to do freelance work whenever I needed money–that is, whenever I was flat broke and had no choice. That lasted until 1989 or 1990.

Jerry: Your title is interesting. I’ve rarely seen memoirs with a place name in the title. Why was the place so important that it deserved to be the first part of your title?

Rick: When teaching fiction writing I tell students that setting determines character, and character in turn determines plot. I think the same often applies to memoir, and certainly in this case. The people and culture of San Miguel–both Mexican and gringo–had such a profound collective influence on this period of my life that I perceived the town as the major “character” in my memoir. While on the surface, my story appears to be about my own transformation, the agent of that change was the town and its people.

Jerry: Moving to another country combines the element of escape, that is, getting away from your regular life, with its opposite, that is trying to establish the patterns of a new life. I enjoyed the anxiety and difficulty of your settling into this new place. That theme of being a stranger in a new land is a fundamental aspect of the hero myth, and I recommend your book as an excellent model of that sense of trying to settle in and make sense of a new set of rules. Now that you have written about this experience of going forth into a foreign land and adapting to its rules, would you consider this model as useful for other books you have written or want to write?

Rick: It has been said that there are only two dramatic plots: 1) Someone takes a trip, and 2) A stranger comes to town. Some books, like my memoir, combine these two–as do my two previous novels and the one I’ve just completed. While that writing-workshop adage is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there’s also some truth in it, if applied loosely. In good books, whether fiction or memoir, we encounter characters who take trips of one sort or another–physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or whatever–and who arrive as strangers in new worlds. As readers we subconsciously and consciously look for character development, for change, for chaos made into order. In going to a foreign land where different values and modes of living exist, a character is forced to examine most everything about himself or herself, and there are built-in conflicts in culture, language, and more, which make for good drama. All to say, in answer to your questions, yes, this is a useful model, and it makes me feel somewhat embarrassed by how little overall imagination I’ve exhibited in regards to plot.

Jerry: The second part of your memoir’s title, “A Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” is equally interesting. What made you believe that aspect of the trip was important enough to put in the title?

Rick: It was always a spiritual search for me–a quest to find my own soul. I was then reading Jung, who devoted his life–on his own behalf and ours–to such a search. That quest was the essence of my Mexican experience. At the time I was compelled to head to Mexico, I had become somewhat dead inside. Intuitively, I sensed that I had become overly cerebral and detached from nature–and as a result detached from my own soul. My rebirth came not by rethinking my ideas, but through reconnection with nature, both the nature out in the world as well my own human animal nature. And my connection came through the senses.  Hard for me to put this in a few sentences, as it took me 200 pages to describe it in my memoir. But I believe the path to the soul must often pass through the senses.

Jerry: I have met many aspiring memoir writers who wish they could convey the spirituality of their lives. I think you have done an excellent job doing exactly that. But rather than defining spirituality, you show how it pervaded a number of your experiences, such as love and romance, letting go of rigid structures, folk religion, visiting a holy site, and an extraordinarily poignant, even chilling portrayal of a funeral. Your method of portraying spirituality as a pervasive essence makes an interesting model for how other writers could achieve the same goal. When you wrote your memoir, did you have an idea how you were going to write about spirituality? Or did you let the scenes speak for themselves, allowing spirituality to peek out from the edges?

Rick: I think your last comment comes closest to answering the question, How to convey spirituality in a story? Spirituality has to do with the unknowable mystery of life and, for a writer, thus can only be approached indirectly. As with emotions, you can’t really describe it as you would a physical object, or argue for it, or beg for it, but must use concrete objects, sensory details and action to do so, to represent it metaphorically. We are genetically hard-wired, I believe, to respond emotionally to well-wrought stories–we’ve been telling them for a million years or longer, from tales of the hunt around the campfire to today’s memoir and the story of search for meaning and self-actuation. The tried and true conventions of storytelling–conflict, the hero’s quest, dramatic irony, pointed dialogue, revelation, resolution, etc.–still apply and give us tools to transmit emotion of all sorts, including the spiritual variety. Those who wish to convey the emotion of a spiritual quest would be well served, I think, by studying the dramatic arts, which include fiction-writing techniques. When I write, whether it be memoir or fiction, I work to put the reader in the place of the story, so it becomes the reader’s experience as well, so the reader visits the scene in his or her imagination and feels the emotion. I want the words to disappear, for the reader to get beyond the intellectual surface of the page and into the imaginative world of the story. In the case of this memoir, I did not set out to write about spirituality per se, but to write about a pivotal time in my life where I went through a great transformation, part of which was opening myself up to the non-rational in life. To do that effectively and make people feel it, I had to use all my tricks as a creative writer.

Jerry: How has your sense of your spiritual quest changed and grown over the years?

Rick: It never ends. One strives to stay centered, balanced, but without always succeeding. When I get off base I try to return to the things I learned in Mexico: to appreciate small blessings, to acknowledge greater forces, to live inside my body and in the moment. I return to Jung and Zen writings, and to the gods and spirits of my childhood pantheon, which reside in nature, both animate and inanimate. Then comes the rebirth, if one is lucky, when the world again seems new, fecund and inviting.

Part II

Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”

In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.

Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.

Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.

Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?

Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.

Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?

Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.

Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?

Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.

Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.

Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.

Part III:

A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is a journey. In addition to finding and writing material, we also strive to improve our skills, the same road taken by the authors of all those books that have entertained and informed us since the beginning of our lives. In addition to the lessons they have recorded between the covers of their books, many writers are also happy to teach. In this third part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, novelist, writing teacher, and author of the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I pry into his insights about writing.

Jerry Waxler: I was intrigued to see you immersed with these characters. You wanted deeply to learn from them about letting go and just living. And yet, you kept diving into your books. It was an interesting character portrayal of yourself, a guy who wanted to find himself in the culture and yet kept finding himself in books. I can relate! How self-conscious were you of this self-portrait? Did you have to work at the self-portrayal, or did this emerge naturally from events.

Rick Skwiot: I don’t think I consciously crafted a self-portrait here. I was just trying to report on this guy who went to Mexico and found himself, and how that came about. For most any memoirist, there are two first-person characters: the author/narrator who is writing it and the historical character who experienced the events in the book’s scenes. The author has some temporal distance from that other first-person character, in my case, the man I was some 25 years ago. I think I was able to write about him with some detachment because he isn’t me, but a character from my past who has no current existence. This was even more apparent to me when I previously wrote my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake, which takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1953, when I was six years old. In fact, in early drafts I used third person to describe the six-year-old Rickey, since he seemed another person to me. (My agent and the first few publishers who read the manuscript found this rather off-putting, and I subsequently agreed and changed it to first person.) Anyway, in writing San Miguel de Allende, Mexico I was able to draw from extensive journals I kept in those days, a day-by-day reporting of what I did, what I read, and what I thought. So I was able to recount fairly accurately who I was in those days, and to perceive the significance of events then thanks to the authorial distance of some decades.

Jerry: In your book you show scenes when you are reading great works of literature or working on your own writing. I enjoy this aspect of your book. You let me watch your literary coming of age, during which you drink in the literature that came before you so you can learn how to write your own. Could you say a bit about your choice to put your literary passions into the story of your stay in San Miguel Allende.

Rick: I think you’ve said it pretty well, Jerry. The great literature I was being exposed to then for the first time affected me deeply and altered me–it was an important part of my experience. And these were the giants I was, and am still, measuring myself against as a writer. I know there are all sorts of writers just as there are all sorts of people, but in my heart I never really wanted to be a commercial writer but a writer of literature. This was a great and difficult leap for me, to aspire to do that, as I came from a working-class environment where there were no writers, much less literary artists. Being a creative artist just wasn’t on the radar for me. But as I grew and developed and gained confidence, I kept raising my goals and expectations for myself. As I show in my memoir, at the time I first went to San Miguel de Allende I was still very unsure of myself as a writer and an artist–I had hopes, but that was it. But I also had some great mentors who pointed the way–Chekhov, Simenon, Cather, Hemingway, et al. These were my instructors and role models. They were pivotal in my development and important characters in my life, even though I had never met them. Thus they had to be characters in my book.

Jerry: Fascinating. That explains a lot. Your journey from a working class family to an young man who wanted to be a literary writer is an unspoken subtext to the memoir driving the protagonist. It’s like I am now seeing the backstory that makes the book work even though in the book you don’t show scenes from that childhood. I love it. Many memoir writers struggle with how much backstory to put into their memoir, and now I’m seeing that sometimes it’s okay to let the  character’s personality speak for itself.

Rick: Exactly. The reader will get it if it is embedded honestly…I’m now writing a novel in which an angel from Writer’s Heaven, Ernest Hemingway, acts as a mentor to my protagonist, so I’ve been immersed in what the real-life Hemingway had to say about the craft of writing. I think his “Iceberg Theory” from Death in the Afternoon applies here: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, there would be no struggle, no story, if our protagonist had come from, say, a family of writers or artists or successful people who paved the way for him–or at least it would have been a different type of struggle. But I knew my working-class backstory (and the role it played in my struggle) and had previously written about it with affection in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake. There you see that while I had no material class advantages to speak of, I was given one great gift, a hard love that granted me emotional security and kept me grounded–which ultimately enabled me to venture out spiritually, intellectually and artistically. As to my Mexican memoir, I sensed rightly, I think, that any extensive digression into my childhood or my frugal family background would interfere with the narrative drive and perhaps come off as self-indulgent.

Part IV:

How does it feel to write a book? Tenacity of a writer.

By Jerry Waxler

Aspiring memoir writers look forward to someday looking back on the publication of a book about that earlier period in their lives. What will that feel like? More importantly, what will it take to get there? In this part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I ask both questions.

Jerry Waxler: So now, flash forward to when you were actually writing the book. What did it feel like to go back into those periods? Did you feel nostalgic, or reluctant to remember? What sorts of things did you learn from the writing that you had not noticed the first time?

Rick Skwiot: As I mentioned above, in most memoirs there are two first persons, two I’s–I the narrator and I the character at the time of the story. The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote that no man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. My more mature self certainly felt nostalgic, but the strongest feeling was the sensation that I had left behind another unlived life–that there was another man there and then and another river, which he chose not to wade into. It makes one wonder about the roads not taken, a very bittersweet sensation, but also, for a writer, a great springboard for imagination and new stories, new fictional worlds. It makes you realize that the choices we make in life really matter, and that timing is everything. Luck matters too.

Jerry: Tell me about your persistence, your pressure, your long goals, and so on of taking so many years to turn the story into a publishable one that actually reached me. What sustains you through this long, tenacious, ambition to find readers?

Rick: What keeps me going is a brand of insanity. Certainly writing is an obsession with me, for I can’t stop, and a vice, for it gives me such pleasure. One has to be compelled to do this, for the work is daunting and endless and the rewards–by most standards–meager. I tell writing students and beginning writers, “If you don’t have to do this, if you can do something else, if you are not driven my some inner force that defies logic, then don’t waste your time. You’ll only make yourself and those around you miserable.” But for me it is a calling, like the priesthood, perhaps, though not with a vow of poverty but actual poverty. However, all those caveats are swept aside for me when the work goes well, when you have the joy of creation and feeling of being visited by the muses, and you find the best parts of yourself somehow, which end up on a printed page. At times, when I am questioning myself and having second thoughts about the whole enterprise and I go back and re-read my earlier published work, I am awestruck, wondering how I did it, where it came from, feeling as though it was not me that pulled it off but that I was just a mere vessel into which Calliope, say, poured some libation which I then spilled out on the page. Then I see I have taken the right road.

Part V:

A novelist comes alive in a memoir, or is it the other way around?

by Jerry Waxler

Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” also wrote several fiction books, making him a good resource to help me understand the relationship between these two apparently very different narrative forms. In the first parts of this interview I asked him about; his spiritual quest, turning notebooks into a memoir, and more about his life as a writer. In this fifth part of our interview, I ask him about fiction, fact, and finding an end.

Jerry Waxler: You have written several fiction books. Which did you learn first, memoir writing or fiction writing?  Have themes from your journey to Mexico infused your other writing? If so, how?

Rick Skwiot: Learning how to write fiction came first with me, long before I ever thought of writing a memoir, though “learning” it is a never-ending journey, perhaps like “learning” philosophy or learning wholeness. However, like fiction writing, memoir writing is creative writing, and all the tools and approaches that I learned as a novelist I applied to my two memoirs: how to organize my material for dramatic effect, develop interesting characters, modulate and pace the story, construct emotion-laden scenes, build taut and tense dialogue, keep the narration driving forward, etc.

Fiction writing also helped sharpen my imaginative powers, which certainly come in handy when writing a memoir. For example, in my childhood memoir I wrote a scene in which I imagined my widowed grandmother’s secret lover (whom I learned about 50 years after the fact) meandering North St. Louis streets after being chased from her flat prior to our Christmas morning arrival. Appropriate turf for a memoir, I think, the memoirist’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination.

As to themes from my Mexico journeys infusing my other writing, yes, they do, for they have become part of me. They show up quite plainly in my two early Mexican novels, particularly in Sleeping With Pancho Villa, though in an indirect and subtle way, I hope. The playwright Arthur Miller once said that all drama attempts to answer the question, “How does a man make for himself a home?” That can be said of novels and memoirs as well. I think the spiritual quest is central to that search for home. All men and women have something of Odysseus in them, and lives that parallel the Odyssey—we are all trying to find ourselves and our place in the world, to vanquish monsters and false suitors and navigate threatening seas to return home.

Jerry: How did writing a memoir help your fiction?

Rick: Writing a memoir helps put the author in touch with his or her deepest feelings. It is both, from time to time, a melancholy and an uplifting process. But digging into oneself and one’s past in an honest way helps a writer recognize what’s important—what resonates with you, what moves you, what frightens you. Those things are probably what should drive one’s fiction writing as well. Overall it helps you see yourself better and more honestly, which will make you stronger as a fiction writer and as a human being.

Jerry: How much help did you receive from other writers, say in critique groups. Did other writers help you gain perspective and create a clean, straightforward portrayal of your journey?

Rick: I got some valuable feedback on early drafts from writers and intelligent readers alike. Actually, the concept of starting the book at the time I broke my ankle came from a reader who is not a professional writer but a yoga instructor in Mexico. When he made the suggestion, it was like a curtain going up and I saw the rightness of it. (I’ve learned to trust my heart on fielding criticism, rejecting suggestions that don’t really resonate with me, and embracing those that feel like revelation or, conversely, sting.) Most writers benefit from good critiques, and it is very difficult to operate without them. However, it is not always easy to find. Fortunately I do have some friends who are novelists, and we read each other’s works-in-progress.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Rick: I have just finished a “final” draft of a novel, Key West Story, in which a down-and-out writer in Key West, suffering from writer’s block, penury, and self-doubt, is visited by an angel—a young Ernest Hemingway reincarnate—sent down to get this worthy yet misguided soul back on track as a man and a writer. Together they set off to Cuba in Hemingway’s fishing boat, to attempt to smuggle out a Cuban Navy salvage diver, a Santeria priestess and maps to sunken Spanish galleons. Although it has certain autobiographical elements, probably best written as fiction, not a memoir.

Jerry: One last thing. I am very sensitive to downbeat endings. For one thing, my experience with the existential and nihilistic literature popular in the sixties depressed me profoundly. Once I overcame that depression, I have tended towards literature that lifts. From that point of view, your book challenged me. I found the pervasive death and poverty depressing. And yet, in the end, I felt uplifted, not by what you found in Mexico but what you found inside yourself. This theme of a young person trying to find himself is one of my favorite themes. But you had to finesse your personal rewards within the gritty reality around you. I can see a dynamic tension between these two opposing forces, your insistence to grow and the severe limitations that poverty placed on the people around you. How did you feel about portraying this tension?

Rick: I have spent my life trying to balance those opposing forces, the yin and yang, my melancholy and my exuberance—product, perhaps, of a mercurial Slavic soul. The world has always been a difficult and dismal place for our species, with threats and evil lurking, but also an enveloping home with great beauty and riches. Life is struggle, for everyone, and those who have the inner resources and high spirits to fight on in the face of great adversity are those we most admire. Like you, I want to hear their stories, not the stories of quitters, pessimists and whiners. The protagonists don’t have to succeed in reaching their goals, but they have to strive with great heart. When we read these stories, we see it is the struggle that ennobles us and the thing that matters most.


An excellent blend of travelogue, memoir, and spiritual reading

5.0 out of 5 stars. From Midwest Book Review.

The spice of life awaits anyone who seeks to find it. “San Miguel, De Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing” is a tale from Rick Skwiot as he reflects on turning his life around during an extended trip to Mexico and learning what it had to offer him. With a thoughtful approach and no shortage of sensational writing that doesn’t skimp on the interesting parts, “San Miguel, De Allende, Mexico” is an excellent blend of travelogue, memoir, and spiritual reading.

Alumnus writes memoir about Mexico

From the UMSL Newsroom

By Rose Postma

Today University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus Rick Skwiot is an award-winning author of several books, but in 1965 he was just a freshman beginning his education at UMSL. His unversity experience challenged and changed him.

“Many students were first generation university students like me – ethnic, eager to break from working class backgrounds,” he said. ”It was intellectually and socially stimulating. It made me think about living large, having a life of the mind.”

And live large he has. After earning a BA in sociology in 1970 from UMSL, Skwiot spent a large part of the 1980s in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, trying to understand the culture and find himself.

Those years in Mexico provide much of the basis for his new memoir, “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico: A Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.” His sojourn was filled with struggle, drama, seemingly supernatural occurrences, beautiful settings, humor and even a little sex and violence – the perfect subject for a memoir.

“In writing a memoir you get to use all your skills as a novelist and fiction writer, but you don’t have to spend all that time making it up and agonizing over plot, characters and causality,” he said. “Also, nonfiction has a certain credibility and accessibility for many readers who may not always buy into fiction. It’s simply another way at getting at the truth.”

Skwiot’s native St. Louis makes several appearances in the book as he periodically returned to Missouri in order to work to finance additional time in San Miguel De Allende. And even though he currently lives in Florida, he still makes it back to St. Louis several times a year.

“No living relatives left here,” he said, “but many friends and memories – of all sorts.”

Antaeus Books, which recently published “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico,” is a new publishing house founded in 2010 and is also reissuing Skwiot’s earlier published works in new editions.

“It seems committed to doing first-rate production of good literature,” said Skwiot.

Rick Skwiot has come a long way since those days as a freshman at UMSL and said a thousand things have shaped him, including his love of life and literature.

“Even as a child, I was interested in dramatic stories and books and hypersensitive – all helpful characteristics of a writer,” he said. “I’ve also learned self discipline and self reliance. Nothing good is ever accomplished without hard work and dedication, and no one else can do it for you.

More information:

St. Louis Magazine interviews Rick Skwiot on “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico”

How Paradise Affects the Memory

Frequent SLM contributor Rick Skwiot writes both fiction and nonfiction; what he’s after is truth. In his new memoir— San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing—it takes experience, memory, and imagination (not to mention women and tequila) to dissolve his North American angst. “Instead of cluttering their psyches with the debris of envy, hypocrisy, or regret,” he writes, the people of Mexico “exposed their sins and shortcomings, often with humor and a lack of self-consciousness or contrition that astounded me.”  

You stayed in San Miguel de Allende 25 years ago. What surprised you, when you started remembering and writing about it?
How susceptible I was then, how much it all affected me. Living back here for so many years, I had redeveloped a gringo veneer. The other thing that was surprising to me was the schism between my memory and the journal I kept then, which was more on-the-spot reporting. I had remembered things differently than I had written about them. It made me start thinking about not only my own mind but how memory fluctuates and expands and moves about.

Which reality do you prefer—the one your imagination has elaborated, or the purer documentation?
The former. I’m very intuitive, very emotional. So the hard facts of things are not as important as the way they affect me. In my personal life, too, I want to get at what the truth is, whatever takes me there.

So what took you to a little town in Mexico called San Miguel de Allende?
I was going down a road in life I didn’t like very much. I had married in college. That didn’t work out. And I had spent three aberrant years in the corporate world, doing PR for AT&T of all people.

Oh, my.
Yeah, truly. I wasn’t being myself. That’s what made me so vulnerable. I had this compulsion: I had to do something to change myself.

It’s interesting: You felt so driven to take action, yet the solution turned out to be passive, even indolent.
Yeah. There’s this Mexican philosophy where you just let things happen to you and take advantage of the moment and drop what you are doing if a friend comes by. There’s much more spontaneity.

Mexicans say, “Gringos do not live in their bodies.”
Yeah, and I think that’s become exacerbated now, because we have so much passive visual stuff we’re always focused on, and our work has gotten a lot more physically passive, and we’ve gotten more estranged from nature. Plus we’ve got this whole history of Puritanism and the Protestant Reformation and everything that drove the beginnings of the United States. A denial of physical pleasures runs very deep in this country.

Your book makes it pretty clear that sex, and the sensuousness that surrounded it, helped transform you. How?
The way we are abstracted and living in our minds a lot, sex is one thing that takes us back to what we are all about. Primal urges and feelings, love and affection and family and procreation, all these instincts are blended. It’s our chance to be animals again. It’s the most affecting thing we do to get back in touch with nature. It does get us out of living in our minds. Not only is it transformative, but it’s transcendent. We move out of daily routines and everything else when we are in someone else’s arms.

A woman you knew in Mexico said, “Ay, Rick. You try to speak our language and live like us. But you will never be a true mejicano if you can’t make love with people watching.” Can you now?
Metaphorically, yes.

What did you leave behind, when you retreated from gringo culture?
A lot of guilt. A lot of self-criticism. I learned to forgive myself, and to forgive other people.

So what did you jettison first?
Being self-assured and closed down socially. A lot of prejudgment. We’re descended culturally from the Brits, and we have this thing where we judge people by the way they look or speak or smell even. That you had to get rid of pretty quickly. Mexico is a different land, and there’s not that much focus on style as there is on substance.

What was it like when you came back to your “cold, gray, cerebral existence” up north?

Why did you come back?
A lot of it is just being ambitious as a writer, and trying to feed myself. I don’t have a trust fund.

You write about finding a neighbor’s dead body, and how she haunted you, ashen-faced, for the next three nights. What do you make of that, 25 years later?
[He sighs.] I don’t know. I go back and look at that section every time I reread the manuscript, and I still don’t know what to make of it. I don’t discount any possibilities. I guess the Mexicans taught me that.

In Mexico, death is not only ever-present, but it’s treated lightly. How did living there change the way you thought about death?
Ultimately, I stopped fearing it. And I think part of that was simply because I’d started living.

What readers are saying about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing

 I thoroughly enjoyed every page. The writing is, as expected, exquisite, but there is something new and powerful about this memoir… [It] builds a strong emotional core that pulls you in from start to finish… And then, there are countless characters that just make you laugh out loud… Like the land it depicts, this is a book of rare beauty, hope and possibility.”

“A sensual feast. Rick Skwiot gives us history, culture, and humor as he describes the beauty, poverty, and peculiarities of life in small town Mexico. His words will make you feel the warm sun and the lure of tequila, but are grounded in the reality of life struggles–his own, other gringos, and his Mexican friends…Excellent read.”

“…a man’s version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love but without her fat checkbook and self-indulgence.”

“It is not about folk-art and being a clever expat artist living an unreal cocooned life in a Third World country, but about a man, a bit lost, who discovers things about himself through his interaction with people who really live there. If you want to know about the real San Miguel, and not the Tourist Guide version, then you will enjoy this book as I did.”

…The author’s elegant, evocative style demands that the reader slow down–as the American who would absorb and understand Mexico must–and relish each carefully crafted phrase, apt image and well-chosen word set before him. In an era when our neighbor nation to the south appears inscrutable, incomprehensible and dangerous, Skwiot lays it bare, picks it apart for our study and reassembles it whole in a love song to the land where he came of age, lived within his body and found his writer’s soul. Memorable and important, this slim volume is to be savored, reread and treasured.”

“I read it once and just had to go back and read it again–I was so fascinated–for it delves into the lowest and highest reaches of Mexican culture… [The] award-winning author has accomplished another masterful writing…”

“…a thoughtful, sensitive and sometimes funny memoir of the author’s personal journey to personal discovery… His transformation occurs through personal observation and deep understanding of the people he meets. People who live in the present, live in their hearts and most of all live in their bodies… Skwiot discovers that to become an artist requires all one’s ardor. And that is not bad advice for the rest of us.”

Novelist Rosalind Brackenbury’s review of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

[published in Solares Hill, October 31, 2010]

Memoir of a Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing

Reviewed by Rosalind Brackenbury

“San Miguel de Allende, Mexico” 

By Rick Skwiot

Antaeus Books, $14

A memoir of a time, a place, the people in it and the young man he was 25 years ago, when he lived in Mexico, Rick Skwiot’s beautifully observed and written new book pleases at all its levels.

On repeated visits to Mexico, Skwiot takes us from a first, dazzled encounter with blue skies, bougainvillea, the smells of the street and the easy warmth of casual acquaintance into deeper realities: the poverty of the people, their intimate lives and crises, his own fears, the distance between languages, the complications of love relationships and friendships, fights and arrests on the street, death, sorrow, misunderstandings, all the events of life that will include you, in the end, if you decide to be more than a passing tourist in a place.

A memoir can benefit from being written some time after the events described. Here, the perspective gives the writer a chance to see what really mattered. The mature Rick Skwiot looks back on his younger self, in different times, and is able to see the wood for the trees.

Of course, to do this you need to have taken notes, and kept them. Memory fades over the years, but for a novelist (which Skwiot is) this can deepen the impact of the narration. The book has no real plot — well, life hasn’t either. But there’s a narrative tension that is quite rare in memoir, each story drawing you in to wait for the outcome, the denouement of a particular event.

It’s also quite rare in a memoir to find characters who are as real as the narrator. Here, they move and speak on the page: Licha and Adriana, the women with whom, at different times, he finds love; Ernesto his friend; Ramos the eccentric doctor; Lupe his landlady; the American Arnold Schifrin, and others.

Skwiot went to Mexico in the first place to cure a fit of the mid-30s blues. Is any time in our lives more agonizing than our 30s?

This was after a broken marriage and a sense of his life going nowhere. So far, so recognizable. He installs himself in San Miguel de Allende the way many dissatisfied, ex-pat Americans have installed themselves in foreign cities, from Hemingway in Paris and Havana to Paul Bowles in Morocco and on.

He is lonely, doesn’t know the language, goes through the inevitable throes of panic and homesickness as well as amazement at the beauty and kindness of the place. He sits alone, makes notes, is determined to become a writer. People begin to come to him with their stories, he receives them, gets involved, and this is what makes the book a joy to read.

As in Skwiot’s earlier novel, “Sleeping with Pancho Villa”– reviewed here some years ago — and as the place-name of the title suggests, it is the place and its people that are allowed to speak.

Skwiot doesn’t hide his feelings but neither does he dwell on them; the quest for spiritual healing through a sensual involvement in life is allowed to emerge from the events rather than being analyzed.

Yes, if you immerse yourself in life, life will pick you up and take you somewhere.

 Mexico offered him its insights: Money doesn’t matter that much, live for today, enjoy yourself, let your body take over from your mind, let go of anxiety. But it is the writer’s ability to let us see how this happened gradually, as well as a humorous irony that includes himself, that makes it a pleasure to read.

A memoirist needs to be sufficiently personal to be interesting, to connect the dots that are the random events of life, to make us want to go along for the ride.

Essentially, however, he has to get out of his own way and let life in.

Gabriela Popa, Author of Kafka’s House, Interviews Rick Skwiot

Romanian-born novelist Gabriela Popa (author of Kafka’s House) recently interviewed Rick about his new memoir and his work. Following are excerpts from that interview.

GABRIELA POPA: What can you tell us about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.

RICK SKWIOT: It’s been described—aptly, I think—as “sexy, surreal and darkly comic.” In it I paint an intimate portrait of Mexico and Mexicans, a people who stole my heart over my years living among them. It’s also a story about how, with their help, I changed who I was—evolved from a man I had come not to like very much to someone with a healthy serving of Mexicano self-love. The book can be enjoyed by anyone planning on visiting Mexico, to help them better experience the nuances of the culture. Conversely, for those put off by swine flu epidemics, dysentery and narcotraficantes, it’s a good way to travel south of the border without leaving home.

GP: What is your journey as a writer?

RS: My journey as a writer is long and circuitous, all uphill, with numerous cul-de-sacs—but also with some spectacular scenery and stirring adventure along the way. The journey for a writer, or for any artist, is very different than that of, say, a scientist, lawyer or carpenter. For a writer, the best training, mentoring, and educational credentials guarantee you nothing. You have to be lucky as well as good—it’s that competitive and difficult. Like a lot of writers, I started out as a newspaper reporter, which helped me build discipline and practice concise writing. I still work as a freelance journalist. But my Mexican days were pivotal in my development as a writer. My sojourns there gave me some great material, which I’ve now mined in two novels and this memoir. But that experience also helped expand in me my human sympathy. All literature, I think, works to expand the bounds of human sympathy, by exposing us to the lives of others. A writer needs to find that sympathy within himself in order to ably convey it.

GP: How did you arrive at writing a book about spirituality?

RS: This book is as much about sensuality as spirituality—and how one can find spiritual deliverance through the senses…Like a lot of gringos traveling south, I went to Mexico in part for the sensuality. But the Mexicans won’t let you let alone with your rigid Anglo-Saxon verities. They infect you with their ample humanity, religiosity and spirituality. Virtually all Mexicans I met, from all classes and backgrounds, assumed spiritual existence, the presence of God or some greater force in our daily lives, as a given. How could they not, what with all the supporting evidence all around them—all the miracles, supernatural occurrences, and grace that seem to seep from the haunting land there?

GP: I enjoyed very much Sleeping with Pancho Villa, one of your novels situated in Mexico. What drew you to that country and its culture?

RS: When I first visited there I felt as if I was time-traveling. The simple lives that people lived in Mexico reminded me of my frugal childhood, which I wrote about in Christmas at Long Lake. The people reminded me of my parents, first- and second-generation Americans who still carried with them European folkways, which you’ve written about so effectively in Kafka’s House. The Mexican people were dignified, warm, whimsical, and soft-spoken—and, then, yet to be massified. It was like a homecoming for me. I kept going back until I found myself there.

GP: It is not easy to introduce any public (American or otherwise) to foreign cultures, such as the Mexican one. How does one go about doing it successfully?

RS: By telling stories that place the reader inside the culture. By layering in the sensory details and dialogue in scenes that work to transfer the emotion inherent in the lives of your characters—in both fiction and nonfiction, such as in a memoir. The trade secrets that the creative writer employs work to bring those people to life, so the reader gains an intimate acquaintance, so the reader can see them and their surroundings in his or her imagination. Fortunately, I kept an extensive journal when I lived in Mexico, which helped me immensely when, at a distance of some years, I sought to recreate that culture in words. In those volumes I had recorded incidents, dialogue and images from Mexico, which stimulated memories and my imagination.

GP: What do you think are the recurring themes in your work?

RS: I think that perhaps someone other than myself—someone with a little distance and perspective—might be better qualified to answer that. I have been told that loss and redemption seem to figure importantly. I like very much the idea of redemption or metamorphosis—perhaps influenced by my own life story as well as by the writings of Carl Jung and by great literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey, that recounts the hero’s quest. As readers, we are terribly moved by the story of anyone who struggles against great odds, against monsters and tyrants, and ultimately succeeds in some way, finding a boon or an answer that somehow brings order to chaos…Also, like most literature, my books, both fiction and nonfiction, involve a search for home—either in the larger world or within oneself.

GP: Can you share with us your next project?

RS: I have been at work preparing manuscripts for the re-issue of my previously published works, Sleeping with Pancho Villa, Death in Mexico (formerly titled Flesh) and Christmas at Long Lake.  They are being re-released this fall 2010 by Antaeus Books in both trade paperback and e-book versions…I’m also putting finishing touches on a new novel, Key West Story, set here in the Conch Republic and in Cuba. It tells the story of a down-and-out writer/gigolo—though not autobiographical in the least!

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico | Excerpt | “De Efe”

By Rick Skwiot

Excerpted from

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.