We’d been looking for Dan
for a week and a half, scouring the town during the day and crashing on the
beach at night. Bars, hotels, restaurants, resorts - we tried every spot he might
have stopped into or worked at or stayed in or run from. Some days we’d split
up, fan out over the city, some days we’d go together, hit
the big resorts. We each carried one of the photographs I had brought along
from home: Dan, age 19, posing like Brando on his junk-yard Harley; Dan, age
21, lolling on the Ferris wheel out on Navy Pier; Dan, age 22, his Charley Manson
phase, wild hair and Taliban beard, donning dive gear on a skiff off Key Largo. We’d show the photograph to the guy at the front
desk or the waitress in the café, asking in butchered
Anglo-Spanish if they had seen this gringo sniffing around the hotel or stopping
in for a drink. If they spoke English, we might get an answer; none of us spoke
Spanish. Most often we’d get the sympathetic head shake or the curt, indifferent
"no." Several times we got a "si" - one quite
enthusiastic - but all of them were mistaken I.D.’s, dead ends more disheartening
than a day full of "no’s." We had started at the top resorts and worked our
way down, eventually hitting every two-star hotel and taco joint in town. In
Puerto Vallarta, that’s a lot of leg work; the
guys were losing interest. Nine days in they were ready to quit. I was getting
"You’re obsessed," Duff said.
"You got a one-track mind. You’re like that monster with only one eye."
"He’s right," Rock said.
"We got to move on. I’m sick of this fucking place." Rock had hated Puerto Vallarta from the very first day. Somebody
had stolen his carry-on bag and made off with his brother’s GPS handset and
the short-wave he had never even had a chance to use. I couldn’t help feeling
that he blamed it on me.
"Just give it a couple more
days," I said. "Nothing turns up, I promise we’ll go."
None of us wanted to blow
his wad in Mexico
when we had a world of traveling to do. But it was off-season, the weather
was hot and the resorts half-empty. It was easy to freeload and live on the
cheap. We’d pick a hotel in the morning after sleeping on the beach all night,
pay the concierge a few pesos to stash our stuff, and chill out at the pool
or the beach as if we registered guests. At night we’d join in the flow of
people strolling down the Malecón, the promenade that
ran along the edge of the water where the heart of city met the moonlit bay.
It was always crowded with tourists and locals, young and old, gay and straight,
eyeing one another like people do in a town built for pleasure, where everyone’s
a stranger yet familiar all the same.
For us it became a prowling
ground. The Mexican tourists and the local girls wouldn’t give us the time
of day, so we’d hit on the Americans, California college girls on their end-of-summer
binge, or wayward teen-age daughters with hotel wrist bands, girls who had slipped
off into the city while their resort-prison parents sucked their "free" margaritas
and stared in a stupor at the mariachi band.
"The one with the hair looks
like Daffy Duck," I said. "The other one must have left her Prozac back in
"Good," Rock said. "Chicks
on Prozac never get horny."
We were tailing two teen-age
blondes, maybe 17 or 18, a pretty one with a grumpy sneer, and a bright-eyed
one with corn-rolled hair and lips that puckered out like a duck. We followed
them across the street into one of the neon bars that seemed to attract the
tourist girls like buzzing bees to honey, a campus bar airlifted into Mexico
from some Nebraska football town, blasting American rock tunes and mimicking
big city sexual hype with mirrors and glass and flashing lights. It all felt
tired and strained to me, but I followed along as we crowded in beside the girls
at a grubby table littered with overflowing ashtrays and spilled beer.
Duff hit on Grumpy the moment
we sat down. He pulled out a photograph and gave her the spiel - only he told
her it was his brother we were looking for.
When Grumpy didn’t respond,
Daffy spoke up. "That is so sad," she said.
She had an accent. Turned
out the girls were French-Canadians from Montreal,
staying at one of the cheaper hotels that catered to the Québécois.
I asked them if they’d like
Grumpy looked offended. "What
makes you think we want margaritas?"
I shrugged. "I don’t know.
You look thirsty?"
Daffy smiled brightly. "You
must be psychic. I’m dying for a margarita."
I told Daffy my mother used
to make her living as a psychic. It sounded like a line, but it happened to
"Why did she stop?"
"I guess she didn’t like what
she saw. Divorce. Poverty. Cancer. Death. She said she could never tell people the truth."
This, it turned out, was not
the sort of thing to tell a bubble-headed teenager
intent on an evening of light flirtation. She never said another word to me
that night. By the time the waitress appeared with our drinks, her attention
had turned completely to Rock, who was telling her that with all his high-placed
connections, he could - without too much trouble - help place her admission
form into the right hands at Brown.
Meanwhile, Duff had launched
into high gear with the beautiful Grumpy. He had taken some French classes
at Alfred, and had finagled his way into a study abroad program in Montpellier for a semester. French was probably
the only thing he had ever learned at college, and I suspect it was only for
use on occasions like this. But as he sputtered on to Grumpy in a tortured
version of her native tongue, the scowl of her mouth remained firmly in place.
Daffy explained: The girl was the casualty of an exploded nuclear family; her
philandering father thought a vacation with his daughter might help expunge
his guilt. Daffy was her friend, brought along to help Grumpy have a good time.
She wasn’t. It was clear
that nothing would make this girl smile, yet Duff, with his inimitable logic,
believed the recent upheaval in her family made her all the more susceptible
to his garbled efforts at seduction. He would use her anger and resentment
to kindle the fires of passion. His latent mastery of French would incite an
insurrection, condemning Monsieur Grumpy to the guillotine, while winning his
sullen daughter over to the swashbuckling American who lived only for romance
and slept out under the stars.
By this time Rock had grown
enamored of Daffy’s lips. I watched him offer to
share with her his gigantic, bowl-sized strawberry-guava margarita, which he
told her was so much better than the boring one I had bought her. She seemed
so delighted, I thought at any second she’d start waddling
around in it.
I polished off my shot of tequila. Realizing I had
no place in the unfolding scheme of things, I bid my friends adieu, saying I’d
meet up with them later on Sand
The air outside was humid
and smelled of fajitas and rotten fish. Car lights streaked past, and the pedestrian
parade on the Malecón seemed to be moving in slow
motion. The only single girl of note was a short, boxy mestiza
in a hotel uniform, shuffling through bus fumes after a day spent scouring bathrooms.
I noticed a tiny silver cross at her neck - another long-suffering Mexican saint.
But she looked up as we passed one another, and the brief glance from her warm
brown eyes gave rise to an unexpected shiver. It may have only been a flare
of desire brought on by the buzz of the Tequila, but it seemed that her eyes
had revealed something darker - something like the mystery of Mexico itself.
Dan had written about this
more than once in the time he’d been traveling the country. I remember in particular
a postcard he sent showing the monstrous, massive stone carving of Coatlicue, the Aztec earth goddess of fertility and
death. He said the statue was a perfect example of his unjustly ignored anthropological
thesis, "A Freudian Geography of the North American Mind." In this dubious
disquisition, the USA took the role of the ego, the lone pioneer
on the Great Plains, the central, controlling,
conscious will that dreamed and schemed and acted on the world. Canada was the superego, the hunter on the harsh, intolerant tundra, the high and mighty conscience of the Great White North. And Mexico, lowly Mexico was the id, the crazed Nahuatl priest in the lush mountain jungle, the deep subconscious, teeming with untamed instincts and arcane imagery, ruled by a primitive nightmare logic. This was the ancient land of the Olmec, the Maya, the Toltec and the Aztec. Of bloody human sacrifice, pyramids and treasure. Of conquistadors and missionaries, and zealous revolutionaries. A nation of greed and grief, of cruelty and corruption, of grinding poverty and
religious fervor. A country that prayed to saints and danced with the devil. A country that celebrated
death and the dead.
Had I seen all of that in
the poor girl’s eyes?