Chapter 10: Stories & Skin
“They say that the Mexican is the only person in the world who laughs at death,” the cab driver says. I know these macabre poetics. I’m estranged by the romanticism of the words, but I’m moved by the reason that anyone would bother saying things like this. He’s looking over his shoulder a little. We are driving from the Benito Juarez airport to my apartment in Tacubaya.
I roll down the window, watch the men whose hair reminds me of my dad’s. I can see the lines left by the comb they ran through it before they left the house. Their hands look like his: big and dark brown with those same pronounced lines, finger nails that are thick, hard like bone.
“My dad just died,” I say. Telling strangers about personal details feels like second nature to me. “He died and I never really knew him. I mean, I knew him like you know a book, a volume of stories, and I picked the dried skin between his toes when I was a little girl, but I didn’t like to cry in front of him. I didn’t like to tell him about myself.”
“Maybe stories and skin is all there is,” he replies.
Mexico City is vibrant, unanesthetized.
Mexico City is the smell of old men’s cologne, hipster cafes that serve cappuccino in tiny pink cups, old women with short hair, machas with hunched shoulders, brown eyes, slow gait, men dressed like clowns selling peanuts, organ grinders, American music, doves on rooftops, clothes lines with plastic pins in rainbow colors, DEET-indifferent mosquitos with unprecedented skill and an eye for the long-term payoff of extended occupation, five-course lunches, a decaying walk of fame, pink taxis and buses that don’t stop all the way, quinceanera princesses on the backs of cars texting on their smart phone and waving like beauty queens, guava jam, dogs whose dicks are out all the time and that fuck on the street, and rich neighborhoods whose borders are demarcated by lighter eyes and smaller features. Twerking is called perreo, derived from word perro – dog – as in: to fuck like a dog.
Milk tastes like one must imagine actual milk tastes like.
The streets smell like gasoline, onions, soup, salsa, garbage, wet cement. The restaurants have fewer walls, and inside sometimes they play acoustic remixes of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up because maybe Mexicans or Americans or Mexican-Americans are into that shit. Here you get your laundry done for 50 pesos and when you’re a westerner with a digestive system unaccustomed to a world where handwashing is bordering on bourgeois, you sacrifice flavor for safety. And it hurts like nothing you know because, as with all things, the dirtiness somehow makes everything better than your wildest dreams. Bacteria is life’s bouillon.
In Mexico City the coffee is from Chiapas, and when something is delicious you say “que rico,” and when something is delicious and you’re hanging out with your new friend named Don Charles, who is a capricious queen who will forget you surely, you say “que cookie.”
I ask the taxi driver if my friend Don Charles is the only person in the world who says “que cookie” and he explains that no, that this world describes things that possess Hollywood-level glamor.
My dad told me a story once about the time he learned that you can never trust anyone. His friend, perhaps 6 or maybe 7, told him to steal 5 pesos from his dad’s wallet and he did, and once his dad found out he was given 5 lashings with a whip, one for each peso stolen. He was 5 years old. He told this story with gratitude and pride. His father was a hard man, an alcoholic who had killed people in the Revolution and never forgave himself.
This is what Westerners are nostalgic for and Mexicans understand. Suffering and the intimacy it affords. The kisses on the cheek, the love for a parent whose commitment to your survival is not often tender and must be renewed every day, far beyond infancy. Friendship that can afford no secrets, experiences that are so undeniably cruel that they don’t have to live in your gut as a vague sense of injustice, whittling away at your sanity.
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ABOUT THE BOOK
I release a new chapter a week on Thursdays - unless I'm exceedingly overwhelmed or whatever I write is so epically terrible I'm too embarrassed to put it on the internet.