I leave San Miguel with a full tank, Xuxa washed white for the road, and Janis wailing on the tape deck. As always, I start north reluctantly, in no hurry to get home. I have no schedule of visits, no deadline to meet (as in our days of folkart sales) and hardly any reason to be going home at all. In past years, we only ever went home when we ran out of money, and that, at least, is still true!
I'm losing my driver's side rear view mirror to metal fatigue. Will I make it to the border before it declines to the horizontal? As always, I play around with the car as metaphor for my life. Mirror message: don't look back! Whatever is over and gone in my life, whatever is behind me, don't dwell there, but here, now.
But I still need a rear view mirror!
I spend a night in Matehuala in a hilarious motel called Palacio Camino Real, studded with six pink and turquoise Doric columns on bases glittering with bits of glass. This is your former $3 hotel of the late '70's, now running $17.
The next day, skirting Saltillo I think of Jacques. It's hard to believe it's six years since we lost "Lefty", Jacques' arm, wrenched from him in a Mexican bus accident. The loss of his arm was like a death. Years later, and the thought still strikes me on occasion, "Did that really happen?" I think I'm used to it, have accepted it -- and -- boom! Sideways out of nowhere comes the unbelievable question -- is it really true that Jacques lost his arm?!
The gray stony peaks bordering the periferico around Monterrey remind me of Steve's and my trip north from San Miguel a couple of years ago to intercept Jacques, arriving in Mexico for the first time since his accident four years previously.
Rear View Mirror #1
Steve and I had left Jolly, our van, at a trailer park on the fringes of the sprawling city, and a cab dropped us at the ugly and imposing gray cement and glass hunk of the judicial building. As we drew up, we spotted Jacques standing in his pass for normal tweed jacket peering around uncertainly and hopefully. After a series of lost and missed emails, he had received no sure message of our planned arrival. But we show up and he is delighted. He tells us our presence immediately changed the ambiance from a threatening, ominous, dehumanized process to "magical Mexican medicine show."
We are joining him for a meeting with lawyers to sign a vital affidavit missing from his case files, an impressive tome 5" thick that includes Mexican news clippings about the accident. The weight of the file is unknown, but we quip to each other, it is valued at about $1,000 per kilo in terms of Jacques' payments to his red-faced lawyer, stuffed into his suit like a breathless little chorizo (sausage).
The missing document, it turns out, is a witnessed affidavit that Jacques has, indeed, lost an arm! His stump is duly examined by the bus company lawyer, and the statement is entered into evidence with much stamping of seals and flourishing of carbon paper! It seems something of an anti-climax, four years after the fact.
There is a paper for Jacques to sign, and Steve and I seriously peruse the lawyerese mumbo-jumbo in Spanish as if to protect Jacques from any legalese shenanigans with our wisdom!
When we shake hands good-bye with the lawyer of the opposition, I say to him quietly in Spanish, "May your heart be opened."
Afterwards, Jacques moans in chagrin, "I can't believe you said that!"
"Why bother with inane pleasantries when you can speak the truth?" I retort. That is the heart of the matter. Sure, he's a corporate lawyer playing for his team. But, should his heart open, he might affect the outcome in some small but significant way. And why shouldn't I lay a blessing on him?
Business behind us, we set out on our odyssey of exploration, camping our first night amidst the dramatic soaring striations of the rock formations of Canon Huasteca. We spend a week with Jacques, taking him to some of our favorite spots we found the previous year in the Copper Canyon area. Jacques is grumpy and critical. Nothing's quite good enough, and neither are we. I chalk it up to his being back in Mexico, without his arm, and all the reactivated feelings of loss, rage and helplessness. He's difficult, and I cultivate tolerance. I remember the last time I say Jacques in Mexico.
Rear View Mirror #2- Bus-rides
The elderly gentleman next to me is snoring gently, head tilted back, mouth slightly open beneath his white mustache. His elbow jabs my hip, but I don't want to move and disturb him. I hope it's hitting a helpful pressure point. The seatcovers warm the bus interior with their orange glow. I'm on a 2nd class bus in route from Guadalajara back to the beach. There was no 1st class available until 10:30 AM, and I was too impatient to wait. When it took us an hour to wend our way out of the city, stopping at every curb to pick up more passengers, I almost regretted my decision.
A set of 6 year old twins in the seat behind me bounce and exclaim as we pull into the countryside, "Mira la vaca!" (Look at the cow!) I smile at the enthusiasm, remembering with a part of my archaic brain those feelings of youthful exuberance about the world all new and full of miracles.
This bus is in sharp contrast to the 1st class special "Ejecutivo" I rode north five days ago. It rumbled cool and contained, hooded against the night, through an invisible terrain. Uncurtained, this segundo clase provides no pretense of separation from the passing world: the rancho fields bounded by low stone walls; the occasional town plaza, prim, correct and colonial, with its towered church and round gazebo centered in the jardin, where Saturday teenagers lounge and chat and flirt on the shaded white iron benches.
I have just spent four days with my friend Jacques in the Hospital Universitario de Saltillo in Coahuila, almost back up to the Mexican/American border. I hold his hand while the bandage is removed from the wounded stump, all that remains of his left arm. It was lost in a bus accident two weeks ago near the town of Concepcion de Oro, where a drunken truck driver forced the Ejecutivo 5 Estrellas bus off the road. Jacques was in seat 25 and a boulder tore his arm out of the window. He lay pinned for two hours before a bull dozer lifted the bus off of his arm.
We marvel that it wasn't his head the rock mangled and tore. He is unscratched, other than his arm.
For four days I live the hospital routine with him. Nurse Sylvia, brown eyes sparkling, waves at me across the room where I sit on my couch/bed, both of us silent in order not to wake Jacques when he manages to sleep in after another restless night. The nurses here are a squad of angels who cure from the heart. We take good care of our patients, they say, "porque los queremos (because we like them). Dressed in spotless white and royal blue sweaters, they are like a flock of birds, smiling and chattering.
Jacques and I take his first walk into the world with an underlying tension, the need to protect his wound from any bumps or jostling. Mexicans don't look away from the empty space of the lost arm. There is no avoidance, and he sees sympathy in faces.
We buy a milagro, a tiny metal image of an arm, to wrap later with embroidery thread and feathers to hang from the crucifix in Jacques' room. "I want my arm to go to heaven and be an angel's wing," he says.
We eat paletas (popsicles of frozen fruit juice) and smuggle fresh watermelon back into the hospital to give to the nurses. Jacques has a whole repertoire of jokes with them about "sandia" (watermelon), the only food he craved and was first able to eat when the shock of the amputation started to wear off.
We call the nurses his "Sandiistas", and they laugh at the political pun. The day he is healed enough to bathe his stump for the first time in the shower, he marvels at how much "jugo" (juice) comes out, and Marta quips, "Puro jugo de sandia, verdad?" (Pure watermelon juice, right?) Marta is the nurse who first tenderly bathed the dirt and gravel from the accident off of Jacques' body.
Every afternoon Jacques' doctor, Flores, (Dr. Flowers) comes in to check on his patient and give us a hit and run history class on the Mexican revolution. I ask Jacques to be sure and find out his opinion on the recent uprising in Chiapas.
A young woman and her mother have adopted Jacques and bring him granola bars and yogurt with fresh fruit. Sonia entertains us with stories from her year in San Antonio at a hostel run by nuns. It is Sonia who offers to drive me to the bus station.
It is hard to leave. I knew it would be like this. Jacques says, "This isn't about your leaving. It's all about your coming." I am on the verge of tears as we walk down the hospital corridor. Jacques insists on carrying my suitcase.
"I hope I haven't kept you from grieving," he says. "I haven't felt sad while you're here. And you'll be here with me the rest of the time now."
The bus stops at a crossroads, and people spill in and out of the aisle in waves. Two boys get on. The older boy, about 12 or13, carries a fiddle, the younger, a small round backed bass guitar. They move to the back of the bus as we pull out into the road, and the fiddle wails an intro to a ranchera love song. The boys' voices are strong. The bus rolls along past cactus, transmission straining through the gears, full of music. I stare out the window through my sunglasses and finally cry.
Rear View Mirror #1 (continued)
On our journey with Jacques through northern Mexico four years later, there is some barely articulated unredeemed resentment. Jacques was hurrying to get to my birthday at the beach when he boarded the Killer Bus. Does this mean, I ask him, that if he and I had never met at Isla Mujeres in January of '67, that he would still have his arm? Or, to take it to the extreme, if Tina Rosa had never been born, he would not have lost Lefty?
There is connection between us in regard to his loss, certainly. But-- cause? Karma? Responsibility? I can't take it on. With all compassion for his loss, I don't feel responsible. Just very, very sorry. And, if he believes in some karma between us causal to his loss, then I am, indeed, Bad Medicine for him, the ultimate Bogeyman!
But I don't think he does. It is just the pain of loss, still so present and strong, four years later. He lost part of himself, part of his body, "Lefty." How can Steve and I even begin to imagine what that is like?
So much went unsaid on our journey. And that seems true of life in general. Despite the tensions of that trip together, if a road could take me back in time, I'd gladly take the Monterrey exit back to that journey with Jacques and Steve.
But I don't. I continue to Nuevo Laredo, where a young man in a yonke (junkyard) refurbishes my rearview mirror, by now almost prone, with a new hunk of metal. When I ask him what I owe him, he responds, "Nada. O algo para un refresco."
I gladly give him twenty pesos for soda pop, making his day. I head confidently into the seething traffic that lies between me and the border, only looking back occasionally, toward the richness that lies behind me.