The Real People

Photo by caliopedreams via Flickr.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, on a street whose name I’ve forgotten, a dog bit my ankle. I kicked the mongrel in the teeth. He yelped, and a sharp voice called him away. I peeled down my sock. Not much blood, but the skin was broken in three places.

I raced back to the garden guesthouse where I lived, high up on the hill. I showed Gabriel the wound and told him the dog’s owner had no vaccination papers. Promises, but no proof. A scientist and my host, Gabriel stretched the skin with his right hand while little Isabella tugged the fingers of his left. It was almost time for comida and the kids were clutching their bellies in mock starvation.

“It’s not very deep,” he said. “Wash it with soap and water.”

In the bathroom, I picked off jagged crumbles of soap with my thumbnail and jammed them into the small holes.

The table was laden with tamales, salad, and agua de Jamaica, but I couldn’t eat. Before leaving the States, I’d received three rabies boosters and a warning I’d need more if I was bitten. I said, “Shouldn’t I see a doctor?”

Gabriel served himself. “If you want.”

The children got boisterous and shared a joke with their father. I thirsted down several glasses of the magenta agua as if it were medicine. Bright sun shone off the clay tiles and steeped the table the color of dark tea. The wood was probably mahogany, harvested from deep in the jungle. Since I started my job as a tour guide at the Lacandon culture museum several months ago, I’d wanted to go to the jungle. People said it was a place that swallowed you and burst green over your head. The lakes were pure and sun warmed. The Lacandons, supposedly the closest living descendents of the ancient Mayans, rarely engaged with the modern world.

I couldn’t stay quiet. I didn’t understand why Gabriel wasn’t worried, too. “Do you think they have the shots at the hospital?”

He kissed his daughter on the head. He said if I was concerned I could go to the hospital in Tuxtla, the state capital, two hours over the mountains. “The bus is very cheap.”

That night I went to the bar, El Cocodrilo, where they played “Black Magic Woman” three times in an hour. I ached for Fernando. In the months when we were together, we ordered another tequila every time the song came on, even if the last round was still full. Fernando hated Santana. I’d never heard of him, though I recognized the song.

There were a lot of things I’d never heard of. I was 17 and had graduated high school early to come here, to grow up a little, as I’d told my parents, who’d paid for my flight and helped me find a host family. Fernando was a Mexican-American with a heart-shaped face who’d just finished a master’s in teaching. He was spending the summer joyriding around his father’s country in a brown sweater.  Tonight I was desperate to tell him about the dog. I wasn’t in pain, but I was scared.

But five days ago, Fernando’s fiancée had arrived.

I sipped tequila and tried to forget, and soon people I knew arrived: Stuart, the pale, skinny Englishman; Manuel, the Spanish museum director; and Zelda from Amsterdam who wore blue mascara. Stuart ordered drinks all around until two tequila shots and a Negro Modelo stared up at me.

“Like a fish, my young friend,” Stuart said, leaning into me.

Stuart was a friend of Gloria and Gabriel. They’d introduced him as “someone your own age,” though Stuart was 35, a teacher in the local schools. He’d taken me on a motorcycle tour of the San Cristóbal countryside. In the afternoons, he played piano in the museum courtyard. I told Stuart about the dog. “What should I do?”

“You told Gabriel, yeah? He’ll take care of you.” He looked at me with moony eyes, head too large for his frame. “Let’s dance,” he said.

Fernando didn’t like to dance; Stuart was smooth and easy on the floor. He mentored me on how I should move my body. “Not so stiff in the hips. You’re all shoulders. Open up more. Here.” Tonight, as on other nights, he linked an orangutan arm around my waist and guided me. “Easy, easy,” he said. “Let me do it.”

The faster numbers I danced with Zelda. We threw our arms around, whiplashing our necks, and laughed, baring teeth.

“I have to get rabies shots!” I said over the music.

“I never want to leave this place!” she shouted back.

Zelda and Manuel had just come back from the jungle. On their trips, the museum staff paid the Lacandon artists for the their handicrafts sold at the gift shop and oversaw the construction of casas de cultura, Manuel’s pet project. The casas were, as far as I could tell from the pictures passed around over lunch, simple wooden structures with a roof and dirt floor, open on all sides. Fat splintery posts supported the ceiling and displayed black-and-white photographs taken more than fifty years ago by the museum’s dead founder. The idea was to provide images of the community’s history in a public space. Lacandon youth could see their ancestors performing now-forgotten ceremonies. In the old pictures, the long-haired Lacandons wore cloth T-shirts down to their knees, walked barefoot, and carried curved machetes. As I said in my twice-daily tours, they called themselves the Hach Winik, the Real People.

Yet most of the people in the color photos documenting the jungle trips were museum staff. When I asked Zelda if the Lacandons themselves visited the casas, she said, “Of course. Why wouldn’t they?” I guess I thought they’d have better things to do, their own dramas to live. Kids wouldn’t be impressed by some backward-looking gringos hanging up pictures of their grandparents. Still, I was desperate to get to the jungle. When Manuel had invited Zelda on this last trip, I asked if I could go along, but he’d said there was no room.  I could go on the next one. But I’d heard that before. When the lists of invitees were drawn up, nobody ever thought of me. On the dance floor maybe, but not for the jungle.

By the end of the night, my stomach was in knots of dog-bite fear and slick with tequila. Stuart squared his motorcycle helmet on my head, fastened the chinstrap, and sat me on his bike. Wrapped my arms around him. Fernando, Stuart told me, was picking up his fiancée in Cancùn. The metal cycle groaned alive, and Stuart took the corner around the zócalo surprisingly gently, slowly enough for the barefoot children to catch us and thrust up small boxes of Chiclets. You could see that their faces had started out open and fresh but were now smudged, scrawny. They slept three to a bench for warmth. It was awful, but what could I do but buy gum every now and then, which only kept them coming back.

It was the end of Semana Santa, and the zócalo was littered with shriveled balloons and streamers, pieces of plastic musical instruments, and the sticky remains of sweets ground into the stones by people’s feet. The air smelled of sugar and dogshit, which changed to pine incense as we zoomed away from the city center. During the week of Easter craze, Fernando and I had walked from church to church, each one burning sacred pine resin. The scent had caught in our hair, enveloped us in bed. Nothing in these churches resonated with the reform synagogue I’d grown up in, which only made me like them more. I was especially drawn to the altars: the motley offerings of stale sweetbreads, jewelry, and decaying fruit, and, above this, framed pictures of saints. The saints here were a rare breed, dark skinned and fierce.

Outside Gloria and Gabriel’s walled compound, I took out from my backpack the five-inch iron gate key. Usually, I made a joke about castles, but tonight I just stood there, not moving toward the door.

“Duerme con los ángeles,” Stuart said.

“I could die,” I said, feeling something in my chest go stiff and sharp.

Stuart’s hand on my cheek. “You’re going to be fine, reina. If you need anything in Tuxtla, call my friend Irma.” On a piece of paper he wrote her number. He held my jaw in the bowl of both hands and kissed me goodnight on the lips, as all the men here did.

In the morning, Gabriel put me in a taxi to the station where I boarded the first bus to Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The trip over the mountains always made me queasy, but now I was sweating and pale from last night’s tequila—I hoped. I guzzled from a large bottle of water. “Never try to keep pace with an Englishman,” Zelda had told me once, shortly after I arrived. But she did, and I followed her example.

My friends here were in their mid-twenties through sixties. They’d gone to college, owned houses, born children, divorced and remarried, had knee replacements. They were adults. I did not think of myself as an adult. I pretended otherwise in public, but I knew I was a child. And my friends, they were grown-ups on vacation from adulthood. They had jobs and lofty goals, but they weren’t accountable. I couldn’t understand how they’d lived in San Cristóbal for months, years, and hardly ever talked about home. Every few weeks they struck out into the jungle to visit the Real People.

The creaking bus wound its way down out of the mountains toward the plains—away from the jungle. Bile jumped up my throat. The woman with wide cheekbones and thighs sitting next to me crossed herself and then offered me a sad smile. I blinked in response and, feeling feverish, curled up close to the window. Once the rabies symptoms set in, I wouldn’t have a prayer.

Fernando and I had spent one winter afternoon drifting in and out of music shops on 16 de Septiembre. He plucked guitar strings and I translated his questions to the salesman. His Spanish was terrible. He played a few bars of a song and asked, “Know what that is?” I shook my head and he tried another.

“We didn’t have music where I grew up,” I said, tired of not knowing. I never felt younger than when Fernando talked with our other friends about bands and movies I didn’t know. There was time, wasn’t there, to learn all this? I planned to catch up in college. But maybe that was why Fernando went back to Sarah, because she knew things that I didn’t. Fernando himself was 25, old enough to know better than to get involved with me. At least that’s what people said. Somehow I had cultivated a kind of anxious sympathy among our friends. Instead of calling Fernando a dog or judging me or feeling bad for her, our friends gave me condoms and suggested places we should visit together before the fiancée arrived. That was the thing about San Cristóbal, we pledged allegiance to whoever was there first. Just as the Hach Winik had preceded the Spanish, I had arrived before Sarah.

Stuart was the only one who’d asked, “What will you do when it ends?”

I’d said I guessed I would move on. But Stuart couldn’t be trusted because he’d wanted something. A relationship, though I hardly knew what that meant. This was when things with Fernando were just getting started, and I suppose I was flush and callous with that success when I told Stuart, flatly, that he was too old for me. He’d looked at me, wounded, and said, “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.”

Swinging too fast around another, steeper curve, my seatmate crossed herself again. Across the aisle the other passengers did the same. In Mexico, Christ followed you wherever you went. Though he was painted and sculpted and understood differently in each village, he was celebrated everywhere like a figure from a cartoon or dream come to life. A figure not mythic or godlike, but entirely personal. People talked about Jesus as if they shared a sandal maker.

My scalp and lower back were sweaty. I might throw up, or shit myself. I crossed my heart for the first time in my life.

The Tuxtla hospital was squat and dark green. It did not have air conditioning. I registered with the nurse with flan-colored skin and hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. I gestured to the nearly empty waiting room and said, “It won’t be long, will it?”

“An hour or two.”

“But there’s nobody here!”

“Muy ocupado,” she said and turned her back.

I waited. I stared at instructions for boiling tap water. Phones rang and went unanswered.

The doctor told me I needed two rabies shots to complete the cycle I’d started in the States. “Come back in four days. We order them from Houston.”

I said I would be dead by then.

“Probably not,” he said. “Those teeth marks aren’t very deep, and the prophylactic shots bought you time. Besides, there’s no faster way.”

But I was terrified. Having come all this way for treatment had only amplified the seriousness of my situation. Rabies, I’d been told by someone, was almost one hundred percent fatal. How could anyone say probably with odds like that?

I started to cry. The doctor patted my back and said he’d see me soon. He offered to help find me a hotel in town, but I shook my head.

I bought a phone card and called Irma, Stuart’s friend. She would be pretty and young with thick braided hair. She would serve me manzanilla tea with heaps of honey. Unloading all my secrets, I’d tell her how men never took me seriously. How I would never have a real boyfriend, especially if I died of rabies. The phone rang ten times, and I was just about to give up when a little girl answered. The voices of more children clamored in the background. No—no way. I couldn’t impose on a mother, a whole family, make my problems theirs.

My mother, if I called her, would say, Fly to Mexico City, Fly home, This is no joke. But I hated it when she told me what life was not. Life is no picnic, Life isn’t fair, Life is no Jell-O salad.

I would not call my mother. I would take my chances here in the Mexico that had bitten me by the ankle and refused to let go. I’d return to Tuxtla for the shots, but for now I had four days. Four days to exist on a higher, carefree plane. I honestly didn’t know if I was being grown up or foolish, but a thrill ran through me.

I walked from the hospital to the bus station. It was hotter here than in the mountains of San Cristóbal, and the sun burned through my damp skin. I drank the last of my water. I got on the same bus I’d taken that morning, pointed back in the direction I came from. The driver did not look surprised to see me.

Fernando and Sarah would be together in the Yucatán by now. They were visiting the ruins: Chichen Itzá, Tulum, Cobá, Ek Balam. All places I hadn’t been. Truthfully, ruins bored me. I couldn’t translate the drab blocks of stone into colorfully painted palaces, temples, and observatories. I didn’t care about constellations, the movement of stars. I’d chosen Mexico because there’d recently been a revolution here, and because it wasn’t too far to take a bus back home if things didn’t work out. Looking at the ruins scaling up into the sky, I’d squint at the jagged outlines and wish for the Mayans to magically appear and parade before me, decorated in looping bird feathers and necklaces of animal teeth. What did shock me was learning how high were the stakes of their lives: how losing a ballgame meant being sacrificed—alive—to the gods. And what if you didn’t want your head squashed between boards to create the royal forehead—what then? The stones couldn’t tell me that, and they couldn’t tell me about sex.

I’d wanted to have sex with Fernando, and I couldn’t understand why he’d always shifted his hips just as we got close, mumbling about my age but keeping his hands on my breasts. “I’m old,” I told him. Where I came from, a small town in the land of cows and corn, my friends had been having sex for years. Too embarrassed about being a virgin, I didn’t ask them many questions, so I really didn’t know what I was doing. “Do it with someone you love,” Fernando would say and ring his tongue inside my mouth, then guide my lips down the hair-flecked skin of his brown belly. Now I knew this protectiveness was a front for his guilt. He could think of us as just fooling around. Real sex would have crossed the line.

But I didn’t feel bad about what we’d done. When Fernando talked about Sarah, when he called her from El Cocodrilo on her birthday, when she finally arrived and I saw her sleek cropped hair and green eyes across the bar, Santana blasting between us, I’d felt victorious.

“Take me to the jungle,” I said. I’d walked to Stuart’s house from the bus station and was covered in dust and exhausted, but buzzing from my plan.

He wrapped a sweater around my shoulders, took the kettle off the stove, and poured steaming water into two mugs. He placed the honey jar and a spoon, along with a plate of bread and cheese, next to the tea. “Manuel’s having a party tonight,” he said. “It’s his birthday. We’ll go and arrange your trip.”

“I can pay my way,” I said.

Stuart shook his head and wiped a smudge of honey from my lip. “Money won’t help,” he said, “but don’t worry. Manuel and I have been friends for years.” Stuart said he’d take care of everything, including calling Gloria and Gabriel so they didn’t worry, which I thought was unlikely.

“Eat,” he said. He eyed my dusty jeans and leaned down to smell the back of my neck. “Then shower and perfume your hair, reina. You want to make a good impression, don’t you?”

I didn’t eat. I was still nauseous, still sweating along my hairline. I bathed slowly in Stuart’s beautiful, floral tile shower, spreading my feet across the smooth floor and imagining the petals of real flowers pressing into my soles. Soon I would be swimming in a placid jungle lake, cupping water in my hands and pouring it over my face. I would be blissfully unaware. When I turned off the water and stepped out, Stuart was there, holding a towel wide in his orangutan arms, head turned to the side and eyes closed. When my mother used to kiss me goodnight I would lower my lids just shy of touching and peer out at her through my blurred lash lines.

From the back of his cupboard, Stuart took out a bottle of Herradura Silver to take to the party. My tongue tingled. “Open it now,” I said.

“Sí, reina.”

It was tequila to be savored, but we didn’t have time. The first shot slid down my throat like a bullet. The second burned slightly less. Stuart put the bottle in a pack and locked the door. Outside, the darkness created soft shadows out of houses and cars. I stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk and Stuart caught me, laughing. We paused to gaze at the glittering sky. Cool wind crept between the fine wet hairs on my neck.

At the end of Stuart’s street we turned left and soon came to a small plaza. At the back, painted white and glowing faintly, was the Iglesia de San Merced. In the daytime the red trim bled brightly; now the color receded into the night. My mother’s brother lived in New York, and during one family visit he took us to St. John the Divine. I’d loved the arches embedded in soaring arches, all rising up to the huge but delicate rose window. But the interior was cold and flat and filled with tourists. The saints pale and anemic. I preferred the earthy, bloody religion here.

At Manuel’s house, Zelda opened the door. She shouted and hugged me, silver bracelets jangling. Manuel’s hand held the curve of her waist. The room throbbed with bodies and music I couldn’t identify. Someone gave me a drink and I leaned against the wall conveniently placed by my side. I closed my eyes and saw Fernando in his brown sweater plucking a guitar string and laughing at my ignorance. But I didn’t care. I’d won, I’d swayed him to my side, at least for a while: what I didn’t know, didn’t see, couldn’t hurt me.

When I opened my eyes, I saw Fernando, wearing a thin T-shirt, hair in his eyes and tan.

“We came back early,” he said.

“The ruins bored you,” I said.

He nodded.

I searched over his shoulder.

“Sarah’s at the hotel. Sunstroke.” He looked at me with glassy eyes. I felt the heat of his throat and chest. My fingertips remembered the patches of hair on his shoulder blades.

It was hard, so much harder than I’d thought. “I’m going to the jungle,” I said.

“I heard you went to the hospital. Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.”  I raised my glass to my lips but kept my eyes on him.  And then my hand was empty and there was a loud crash from somewhere far below. My feet were wet.

Fernando put his hands on my shoulders and steered me away from the broken glass.

“You can go,” I said, my throat tight.

“I want to talk to you,” he said.

What followed could have been the most important words I’d ever hear, could have revealed something profound about my character and who I would become. But I couldn’t bear to hear them. I didn’t want to be mollified, and the time for advice had passed.

I walked out the garden gate, to the street, the night in my hair, and Fernando, that dog, followed me. Now I was angry. I’d made my choice and it didn’t include him. What was he still doing here on my street, in my Mexico? When Sarah arrived, he’d wrapped the country in a song and skidded it back to me across the bar. I pushed him in front of me and held a pointed arm to his back like a Spaniard ready to execute an Indian.

“Walk,” I said.

His neck rolled forward and he didn’t look back. I could feel him smiling. I hugged my free arm around my chest and shivered.

Seeing where we ended up, in a bath of sooty white light under a tall arch, Jesus’s mother gazing frankly down on us, Fernando laughed. “Am I supposed to confess?”

I kissed his lips, soft and warm like the palm of my hand, and pushed him up against the damp wall. The paint was peeling, the stones crumbling. I stepped into the church. Behind me, Fernando’s face divided into the multiple dark shapes of saints and saviors, traitors all. In the church’s shabby light, I made the sign of the cross, the way I’d learned from the woman on the bus. A spare, intimate gesture, a communication only to myself.

When I woke up I was wearing a man’s T-shirt and boxer shorts. Stuart’s long naked body warmed the space behind mine. I shot a hand between my legs. I felt sick for having trusted Stuart—for getting so drunk that I’d lost control. But I felt nothing wet, nothing sticky, nothing dried. I had to trust Stuart. There was no one else.

Wool blanket wrapped around me, I sat up. “When am I going to the jungle?”

“Tomorrow,” he said, smiling his crooked English smile. “For you, reina, anything is possible.”

It wasn’t true. But I knew then from his tone what my adult friends in Mexico were after. A life without consequence. Adventure that could be nightly excused and erased. Not me. Probably I didn’t have rabies, just some parasite, and I would grow up and know things that mattered, not just the names of songs. I would be responsible. Face hard truths. And this future began with lifting my face to the sun and sticking my feet in the dirt—drawing in the essence of this place like a wild vine. I would pack a bag of clean clothes, sunscreen, and insect repellent. I would visit the Real People before the rains made the roads impassable.

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