A traveler struggles to define a complicated romance with his travel partner while exploring the historical sites of Mexico City. This story was selected as a finalist in the Romance on the Road travel writing competition.
Whatever she does, she does well.
She always has, and she always will. She tells me that’s what her name means, and she lives up to it.
Even when she does nothing, she does it well. Perched on a concrete ledge, she sits quietly, swinging her legs back and forth. Bumping softly against the bricks, a gentle tapping, barely audible amongst the commotion of Mexico City on a Friday night. The streetlights reflect against her sun-kissed skin. It glows a rich coffee brown, and I remember its smooth touch. Memories are all I have now. Her eyes stare into the distance, reflecting someone in deep thought, or perhaps lost in a world of dreams. She runs her fingers through her hair, as I have many times before, and it falls gently across her shoulders.
She loved me well.
“Mexico City is sinking,” our guide tells us, walking through the vast Zocalo, the largest public square in Latin America. “It was built on top of a lake. The Aztecs, who founded Tenochtitlan, as it was known then, believed an ancient prophecy. Their God would reveal to them a sign of where to build their city. This sign was an eagle eating a snake, sitting on top of a cactus. When the Aztecs saw the eagle on an island in Lake Texcoco, they decided to build there. You can now see this image on our national flag.” he points skyward, and from a fifty-meter-high pole, a flag that weighs more than a car hangs idle. “It must have a lot of wind to fly.”
“When Cortes and the Spanish came here, they built their own city, and it grew more and more larger every year. But for one hundred years, Mexico City has been sinking.” He directs our attention to the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen Maria los Cielos. Taking almost as long to build as it does to pronounce, the Cathedral is encircled with scaffolding. The eastern side is noticeably weakened and being slowly devoured by the thirsty earth.
“The Catedral was not built on strong foundations,” our guide states prophetically, “and now we do not know if it will collapse, or if we can save it.”
Strong foundations. The words echo in my head for the rest of the day.
“Are you ok if we stay here for a while?” she asks.
“Sure,” and I watch her feet continue bumping against the brickwork. The nail polish on her toes is wearing off. I remember the afternoon when she painted my toenails. Turquoise, or was it aquamarine? It was a blustery winter’s day, and we were stuck indoors; of that, I am sure. She was wearing one of my jumpers and faded pink pajama pants with rabbits on them. Even then our foundations were unstable, but she loved me. As well as she could. That is why I care not where we are, what we are doing, as long as we are together. She loved me well, and that is why I am still in love with her, months after it has ended. Months after our own scaffolding fell away, and what could not be saved, “us,” was returned to the earth. Burnt, packed away, scarred, stowed in memories.
We each remain in comfortable silence, as Mexico City on a Friday night plows on around us. Everything about this place is exaggerated. It is sinking quicker than most other metropolises while also being one of the fastest growing cities in the world. As a result, no other city does traffic quite like Mexico City. A snaking row of static headlights trails down the street and around the corner, and I spy another on a distant overpass. Meanwhile, horns blast in surround sound, bouncing off city walls and reverberating through the warm evening air. On the other side of the street, graffiti is painted on a vacant building: FUERA ULISES DE OAXACA! A call to arms from the people of Oaxaca. What began as a peaceful protest by school teachers months earlier has exploded into nationwide demonstrations. I recall the marquees on the edge of the Zocalo, the banners and the chants, the indigenous headdresses adorned with feathers, and the wafts of smoke rising from pockets of the crowd as curses were concocted and names tarnished. The Oaxacan protests have escalated dramatically since peaceful protestors were fired upon, with claims of government death squads and summary executions – no other city does protest and revolution and murder quite like Mexico City.
For almost one hundred years, following a decade-long revolution, Mexico City has attracted the outcast and the ostracized. The capital became a safe haven for refugees from Franco’s Spain, and artists, writers and political exiles from Latin America and beyond. In this piquant mix of the unwanted and harassed, love and art and romance intertwined, further embellishing the soul of the city.
It was here that Trotsky thought Stalin could never reach him. In the borough of Coyoacán, he found safety in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, two of the greatest artists of their generation. He also found love in the arms of his hostess. Kahlo and Rivera shared a famously tumultuous love affair, with their devotion and anguish immortalized in their artwork. For a quarter of a century, they married, divorced, painted each other, remarried, and indulged in extramarital affairs. Trotsky and Rivera fell out following the Kahlo affair, and the Russian found himself expelled once again. In 1940, Stalin’s men finally caught up with him, and he was brutally murdered with an ice pick.
Years later, in the cafes of Mexico City, a young Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara would meet. Fleeing to Mexico after his failed coup in 1953, Castro set to work amassing a band of revolutionaries and a stockpile of weapons. Inspired by the legend of his countryman and fellow anti-imperial revolutionary Jose Marti, Castro would not fail a second time.
“How many more days do we have here?” she turns towards me, still half in a daydream.
“We fly to Chiapas on Monday. Early afternoon.” She smiles and looks away again before being drawn from her reverie by a man who approaches us.
“¿Hola, amigo, tienes un cigarrito?”
“Sorry, no, I don’t smoke.”
“Oh inglés, are you American?”
“Ooooh, so far away amigo,” he chuckles.
“It sure is,” I reply, returning his smile.
“And she is your…?”
“Aah,” I hesitate and look up. In the muted glow of the streetlights, I see a woman who I am still in love with. The ill feeling of regret rises in my throat, and I stutter a reply: “She is… we are… friends.” The word is forced from my mouth and drops at my feet, lifeless and dull. Friends. It leaves the aftertaste of a floury apple, and I want to spit the tasteless residue, expel it. Friends, are we?
“Oh,” and he takes a cigarette from his pocket and lights it, “but I think maybe something more? Si?”
“Well…” and I stumble again, torn between wanting to scream and confess my undying love and have it echo through the streets of Mexico City and wanting to desperately change the subject. In the end, I choose neither and answer meekly, “Before, yes, but not anymore.”
He draws on the cigarette, “But I can see it amigo, I can see it in your eyes.” I do not dare look up at her and instead maintain my focus on him. “I can see in hers, too.”
We are both silent.
“I can see love, you know. It’s possible to see it on people, in their faces, in their eyes. I see it in your eyes, amigo. I know you love this girl, your ‘friend’ as you say. I can see something in her eyes, too. Maybe not love, but something. I can see something there. You know we have a writer here in Mexico City. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you know him? He is not Mexican, but from Colombia.” I nod in recognition, and he continues: “He is very old now but is still writing books. ‘Nobody can take away the dances you have already had.’ He says that – what do you think?”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“I can see you love this girl,” he repeats, and I remain silent, feeling naked, undone, exposed by a complete stranger with an uncanny intuition. “Sometimes you need to let people fly, to see if they return. That is not Marquez, that is just free advice from me, amigo, She is like a kite trapped in branches. I can see her, she is restless. Cut her free, let her sail into the sky, high in the clouds, the winds beneath her wings, amigo. If she returns, then she is yours.”
We are both silent. She is no longer tapping her heels against the concrete. I hear the bangles on her wrist sliding up and down and look over to see her shuffling in discomfort before tying her hair into a ponytail. In a matter of minutes, this man has, armed with nothing more than a few questions, completely unraveled me. Like a violent gust of wind, everything is now overturned, scattered, and I am left to pick up the pieces.
“Ok amigo. I leave you to enjoy your evening,” he says with his hand extended.
I shake his hand, dumbfounded, and bid him adios. “Hasta luego, amigo. I see you again someday.”
He turns and walks away, his trail of smoke wafting upwards in the night sky.
She knows. She already knew, I’m sure of that. I turn to look at her,
“Well, that was…”
“Yeah, it was,” I reply, preferring to leave it open to interpretation.
“Shall we head back? It’s getting late.”
“Sure, vámonos.”We walk back towards the hotel, through the streets of Mexico City on a Friday night. The Zocalo feels larger without the tourists and the protestors, though the sinking of the Catedral is still noticeable. Strong foundations, I recall. It is quieter, too, a relative term in Mexico City. The smacking of rubber against concrete is now more distinct, and the city’s pigeons are emboldened, squabbling and cooing over crumbs in the square. Their collective flapping echoes through the emptiness when they are disturbed. As we near the hotel, I feel her hand brush against mine. Or does it? She doesn’t do accidents. I feel it again, and then our fingers interlock. Her hands are warm, slightly sticky, or is that mine? The memory of her touch, this feeling, surges inside me, mixed with regret and fear, confusion and desire. We reach the door of the hotel, and not wanting to let go, I fumble at it with one hand. She releases me and helps me unlock it and push it open. She then takes my hand again, and we walk upstairs, together.