THE END OF MY DAYS OF SAINTHOOD
The day after I arrived I took the metro to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint; the brown goddess poised on the dashboard of almost every taxi in the country. I wasn’t Catholic but something in me requested sanctuary. I was away from home for the first time. I noted the faithful, several approaching the holy site on their knees. One man captivated me. He had pillows tied to his knees as he crawled towards the Virgin’s shrine; in his arms he cradled a premature infant. His wife followed slowly, her body still unused to its new shape; the weight of her tiny baby evident in her eyes. I hurried past them into the Basilica, jealous of their faith.
The city is built from the ruins of ancient temples. Beneath the spires and concrete, the old swamp is claiming her own and pulls the city down inches every year. Before the conquerors, Mexico City was Tenochtitlan, an Aztec city built on Lake Texcoco. The ancestors filtered water, held elaborate markets, art centers, bathed twice daily, drank chocolate and practiced sacrifice to satiate the Gods. Five hundred years later, ritualistic sacrifice has disappeared; walking the uneven streets I believe it has taken a new form. I see people who are closer to dying than they are to living and know that near my border home, countless sacrifice their lives daily trying to cross into a land of alleged promise.
When he first approached me on the roof of the Mexico City hotel bar, he was the type of man I routinely rejected. I was at the point in my life where I had been failed by love for the first time and wanted nothing to do with it. I was a twenty-four. I thought arrogance was a sign of wisdom. I was young. He carried a guitar case. His goatee was artistically shaven and hair disheveled. I tried to ignore him. I was still exhausted from flying in and away from everything familiar to me.
He asked where I was from. I yawned California. He complimented me on my Spanish; I didn’t mention it was the language I’d been born into, albeit, in an other country. His lisp confirmed he spoke the King’s Spanish. I asked if he’d come to check out the land his people had pillaged centuries before. He gravely apologized and told me that my Montezuma had been having his revenge and he’d been running to the toilet since his arrival. He made me laugh out loud for the first time in days. He offered me a light and smoked with me, I pretended to be fascinated with the skyline. He asked where my boyfriend was, I told him I was celibate. He raised an eyebrow and asked if I was a saint. When he was distracted by another, I slipped away.
Five-hundred and some years ago he could have been Cortés, cunning in ways only a conqueror could be. With my translating tongue and long black braids, I recall an easy Malintzín. Malintzín was first the translator for Cortés, then his lover. According to legend she gave birth to the first Mexican; half Spaniard, half indigenous. I guess somewhere back there she is one of my mothers. To this nation she birthed, this makes her the land’s most famous traitor. They call her La Malinche. The word is synonymous with betrayal.
The morning before we became lovers, I let him follow me to the pyramids at the edge of the city. There was one for the sun, one for the moon, and everywhere, grasshoppers. He thrilled at the insects and hopped after them, his silliness endearing. Even at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun there were grasshoppers. Spiritual tourists stood in a circle, their arms raised, eyes closed. Their leader lead their breathing and in English asked them to allow the energy of the vortex to flow through their bodies. I wondered aloud how hard the ancestors would laugh if could they observe the scene, or if they would just be bewildered. I translated to him about the energetic vortex. He ask if it was sexual and pointed out a pair of mating grasshoppers that had hopped their way to the top. I laughed and enjoyed not answering.
We came back to the city through the Zócalo, the city heart and plaza. Unemployed men seeking work lined the busy street. They carried cardboard signs with their professions written on them. Albañil. Plómer. Herrero. Construction worker, plumber, welder. He said your sign would read Poeta. Mine Amante. Poet. Lover. Around the Zócalo danzantes saluted each direction with their bodies. Shaman burned copal and offered to lift curses. Goth kids with bootleg Morrissey shirts hustled to pierce body parts with sterilized needles they waved in sealed packages. At the head of the plaza a Cathedral towered, built with the stones of a destroyed civilization. We ate the last mangos of summer in silence, knowing our roles. We were young enough that the games were still fun.
That night I heard a knock on my hotel room door. When I opened it, he stood in the doorway, asking if he could come in. I tried to tell him I’m wasn’t interested but he leaned up into me and let me taste the metal of his tongue ring. He pull away and whispered Your days of sainthood are over. Despite abstractions of who we imagined ourselves to be; we were still animals. I let him in.
One of his nation’s poets describes duende as the indescribable; the rawness of emotion in a singer’s breaking voice; the soul pounding its way into fruition through a dancer’s step or lover’s hips, the holiness in the ache between breaths. Duende. A bird’s beak in the heart. The relentless intimacy between naked strangers.
We went to the sea, found a room with mosquito netting, spent. There were painted boulders forbidding the poaching of iguanas and the air was heavy with water. We took a boat, dove off rocks protruding from the Pacific. Beneath the surface of the sea he made faces that reminded me of a child who didn’t yet know the worlds that would one day limit his expression. It was there he decided to be honest. We were past the point where it would have made a difference anyway.
Of course there is another. Cortés had a wife at home as well. I don’t want to know her name or the shape his mouth takes while saying it. Nothing said is more than enough.
The last day I knew him he sat framed in the morning window, smoking. On the bed, all I wore was his long shadow as I watched. Smoke haloed around him. He asked me if I knew how beautiful I would one day be while pregnant . My world folded in on itself. I was flattered and embarrassed and ashamed and I didn’t know why. The comment that would haunt me, his words draped over my naked body for years. He finished smoking and went for a swim. I too was swimming, kicking out inside, trying to find the ground I had just been swept from. No, conquerer, I said to myself, no.
We returned to the city and he flew away.
I am left with teeth marks and more questions than can ever be answered. Bells ring, calling the faithful into worship, praise. Though the city is sinking, there is a buoyant undercurrent I’m now aware of. Unrelenting potential out of what has been devastated. I want to wear a sign but don’t know what it would say. I keep walking the city, hungry.