Culture Shock (15)

The cats and I crossed the border from Sonoyta, Mexico, three years ago on the second of July. I sang “California Here [We] Come” most of the way through Arizona. Near the California border, we were perched on a ridge on the highway with lightning breaking beside us, my fingers white where they gripped the wheel, the thunder drowning out the beat of my heart. But it cooled the air, welcome relief from the July heat, the desert washed clean around us, alive in scents and color. We bogged down just west of Blythe, an accident on the interstate, and I dipped a washcloth into a bucket of ice water, squeezing it out again and again on the heads of my two cats. I remember running ice cubes over my own forehead, across the back of my neck, along the curve of my collar bone. I decided I was being groomed in some fashion, learning a new kind of endurance on that journey. I would feel that again in the weeks that followed our new lives in the Coachella Valley, coming to terms with the lethal summers, knowing the heat could kill me.

Close-up of Mexican birds of paradise_orange blooms and buds

I took comfort in the bright orange blooms of the Mexican birds of paradise that laced my new home. I thought it was a happy omen. I remember sitting that first evening on the lawn of the motel across the street from the apartment I’d rented over the internet, using their wireless to send emails to Mexico, letting people know we’d arrived, safe, sound, staggered by the feat. I remember walking in the days that followed, feeling like I’d landed on another planet with the wide, clean streets, the expensive landscaping, the manicured everything. After the narrow cobblestone streets of Ajijic that had been my world, being here couldn’t have felt more foreign. I remember feeling like an alien, desperate to connect with the Mexicans who crossed my path, the woman in the mall restroom, the tailor near my new home, the bartender at the Mexican restaurant who told me the owner there was from Guadalajara. I was stripped of the need to speak Spanish, but I didn’t want to stop. It felt wrong. And everywhere I looked, I saw signs of wealth, and you could walk for miles without being able to buy a bottle of water in the brutal heat.

I wanted a tiendita on every block, even in the residential neighborhoods. I wanted brown skin, black hair, warm, laughing bodies greeting each other in the streets, greeting me. I craved the rich, textured, vivid world I’d left behind. I felt small and unveiled, vulnerable, alone. I missed Ana and Rodolfo so much it hurt, an ache that didn’t go away. I didn’t want to be here. I only wanted to be there, in that other world that already seemed like a dream, all those hundreds of miles away, where I’d left all the food that had flavor, all the color that had depth, all the people who met me with an open heart, warm brown eyes meeting mine. I wanted fruta picada on every corner, tortillas delivered every morning, still warm, the sound of the tamale man calling in the early night. I wanted the life that had become mine. I wanted to go home.

The Trouble with Attachments (14)

Three years ago on the first of July I was driving west across northern Mexico in the late afternoon. I planned to spend my last night in the country near the little border town of Sonoyta. I wanted to cross into Arizona early the next morning. The weather had been kind to us, clouds hugging our toll road for the past three days, but it was still hot. Undeveloped desert stretched in all directions. The night before, we stayed at a wonderful motel, but I can’t remember where it was. I only remember there were big trees and grassy areas, wild ferns, lush growth in contrast to the sparse desert. I walked to see the nearby river from the overpass, and on my way back to my room a big truck drove past me. It was filled with pigs. They were screaming, as though they knew where they were going. I’ll never forget the sound or the feeling of helpless terror it conveyed. I remembered reading (in a romance novel!) that pigs are almost as intelligent as dolphins. Now when I miss bacon I remember their screams.

Desert and mountains copyright Tommy Huynh

Later, I ate dinner on the patio. I lingered through the late afternoon and evening by the pool. It was safe and soothing, my oasis in a stressful journey from Jalisco with my two cats. But as is my wont, I decided I would try to repeat this luxury the following night. This is where I went astray. In the afternoon when I was about an hour or so from the border, I saw a motel in the middle of nowhere, sitting alone on the right-hand side of the highway. It was new, and the man in the office was warm and kind. But I had it in my head I wanted a pool. He told me about a motel with a pool in the next town (whose name also escapes me now, and no staring at my worn and folded map evokes an answer), so I thanked him and drove on. I found the motel and checked in. And little by little I discovered this was where the army stayed. There was a pool, all right, but it was crowded with young army men on their off shifts. I was damn well going to swim anyway, and swim I did, weaving in and out of the boisterous young men. I chatted with one, treading water in the deep end, and that’s when I got the skinny on the place. It turned out they came and went all night long.

It wasn’t only the incredible, constant noise that marred my night. It was the energy of the military outside my door and the sight of all those young men carrying machine guns, that even after almost two years in Mexico I never learned to see without a little skip in my heart. To this day I am convinced my last night on the other side of the border would have been filled with big sweetness if I’d only stayed at the place that caught my eye, not had my heart set on a pool at all costs, been content with my previous night’s oasis without being greedy and trying to grab after more. But there was sweetness in the early morning hours there. I couldn’t get Sable out from under the bed when I was ready to leave, and one of the army guys who was out by the pool offered to help me. I couldn’t have done it alone, and I owe him a debt and my big gratitude. Maybe he was the reason I was there.

[Editor’s note: This photo is by Tommy Huynh. He holds the copyright, and you can find it on his website: http://www.lumika.org/mexico/natural_scenes/14.htm. Used here with his permission. And on another note, I got a chuckle out of my title here. I wondered if people would think I was going to talk about problems with attached files! ;-) ]

Dead Ones (12)

I have a history of dead ones, a habit of coming upon them. There was a span of time when I lived in L.A. where I would find dead animals while I was driving. I would stop to move them to the side of the road. It must have happened twenty times in as many months. I don’t like that we kill them and drive on, leaving their dead bodies to get hit again and again, turned to mangled meat on the asphalt. I’ve cried over dead deer, over the bird I hit who screamed when he died, over the cat who leaped into the path of my car one night in the rain. When I lived in Sebastopol I found a grey squirrel dead on the edge of the road where it bends. I studied it for a long time, marveling at the way the morning mist clung to its plumed tail, iridescent, feather-like. The next day I looked for the squirrel’s body and found a pellet instead. Finding it felt like a gift, being able to know the little one had provided a meal for a bird of prey. I have three squirrel bones, scoured almost white in the bird’s gullet, tucked away in a matchbox, sacred treasure.

The pellet may have been left by a turkey vulture. We had a lot of them there. But I secretly hoped it was from one of my favorite red-shouldered hawks, though I don’t even know if they eat carrion. There was a mated pair who lived on my hill, who would allow me to stand beneath their perch when I saw them, who would tolerate me speaking to them without flying away. One day I found one of them dead beside the road at the bottom of the hill. It was the female, I think, so big and beautiful, gone now. I brought stones to her, my big quartz crystal, a chunk of amethyst, my offerings for her lying in. I am convinced one of my neighbor’s took her body for the feathers. She took my stones, too. It was hard to forgive myself for telling her the bird had died, letting her know where her body was. Later, I saw the male hawk teaching their offspring to fly, one larger bird and one tiny one, only dark specks against the white sky, across the valley from my home. But their calls were unmistakable. I broke open with grief for their loss, with joy at knowing the male was not alone, touched and humbled by their bravery, going on without her. The memory of the two of them flying together, widower father, orphaned son, still makes me want to cry.

I came upon another of my memorable dead in Todos Santos. I found her on my walk just south of the village. I loved that road through the desert, nothing but the sun and the crunch of the sandy soil beneath my sandals as I walked, and then the sound of the sea in the distance. But just outside of town you had to pass a dumpsite. It looked to me as though the garbage washed in with the floods, branches and plant debris mixed up with the trash. But then people would add to it, and the flies would come. I would hold my breath until I’d passed, trying not to look and yet looking anyway, some weird impulse like passing a car accident and slowing down, craning to see. Sometimes there were dead animals there, but more often rotting vegetables, moldy egg shells, dirty diapers, empty bottles of transmission fluid. The dead one who stayed with me didn’t draw any flies. She’d been dead a long time, I think. The desert sun had done its work, bleached her of her smells. She was in the middle of the dirt road, and I remember how shocked I was when I first made sense of her, understood what I was looking at. She was a small mountain lion. She must have been run over, again and again, and she dried that way, flattened like a pancake in the dry desert heat. The image is burned in my brain. It was like a cartoon rendering, the animal squashed flat by a bulldozer, then peeling itself up off the ground, but it was real fur, real cat feet, cat tail. Her form became familiar to me, and I would look for her each time I walked there. I loved that cat.

Last Monday I rode my bike to the community garden. I had my camera in the basket. I wanted to take pictures of all my sprouting seeds, document their lifespan. I was riding on Palo Fierro, and I passed something lying on the sidewalk. I had to stop, walk back to look, praying it wasn’t a dead animal. It was lying in the exact center of the sidewalk, parallel with the edges, in perfect alignment, as if someone had placed it there with care. (It didn’t occur to me until just now. Did someone stop, like me, move it from the road?) My first glimpse had me thinking cottontail because of the colors, beige and white, but the shape wasn’t right.

barn owl wing feathers with lantana (flowers)

When I see who it is, it takes my breath. It’s a barn owl. It must have been hit by a car. I don’t check his underside, only pick him up as gently as I can, carry him to a grassy spot beneath a flowering bush. I pick a few of the bright orange lantana, tuck them by his curved beak, his ruffled wing feathers, his feet. I touch his talons once with my forefinger–they are too amazing to resist. They speak of his wildness, his fierce strength. I can’t help but wonder. Is he the owl I saw flying in the night by the grove of fan palms? Is he my first owl, dead now? We are only a block away from where I saw him.

barn owl talons, lantana tucked up against them

I get my camera from the bike, take pictures of this dead one. I wonder if a bird will come to eat him. I pray for his soul, even though I know it is being well tended. I cry a little. He is so otherworldly to me, the screech in the night, the hallowed, silent white-winged soaring, his feathered shape so still now, ghostly, extraordinary even in death. I stroke him once and straighten. There is a smudge across the day. We’ve lost a piece of light.