I suppose one never truly stops learning. We may find comfortable ruts, secluded neighborhoods, a great house on the golf course – but even hidden within these insulated enclaves, we are always experiencing, absorbing. I guess after a certain age we grow weary of the new, seeking out the comfortable block where all wear the same shirts, shoes and haircut. They are one of us, we are one of them, “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.”
A woman breaks up with you because you are emotionally distant, mean-spirited or as dull as white soap, and you just don’t really give a shit anyway. You stumble through life, having embraced its utter banality, cursing your parents for creating you after a hot summer night in the back seat of a lime green Buick. “Why didn’t they tell me life sucked this bad?!” And at night, in the darkness of another endless journey, you press your hands against your skull, squeezing with all your strength, silent screams exiting through gaping mouth.
You post a photograph on the web for kicks, and view an endless line of hideous women, transvestites, sexual deviants, married women, old women, women on the rebound, women without high school degrees, women with piercings in places only ventured with eyes closed (for the most part). It’s as sticky as a nightclub restroom on a Saturday night. You want to wash your shoes.
You awaken one morning preparing to watch a movie for the fifth time – well hell, it’s a classic – and you check an odd e-mail. She’s pretty, she’s smart, very little bullshit. She’s an accountant, her ex-boyfriend screwed around on her. She broke up with him and now he stalks her. What is it with us guys? We get bored and push women away, and when they actually do what we were trying to make them do in the first place, we decide with furious, crystal-clear clarity to stalk their every living fucking hour.
You talk on the phone for the first time and she’s actually funny. You decide to meet, only, there’s a slight catch. She lives seven hours away on the damn border of Mexico. You shake your head, roll your eyes and marvel at the invention of the wonderful Internet. Suddenly this hideous planet, warts and all, is a very small place. Against your better judgment, you take the road trip – a new town, a new place, a new experience. It’s a fun drive, lots of cactus, three whole trees and a woman at the gas station in pink tube top buying bags of Cheeto’s for wailing kids.
You pull in to Laredo, Texas and immediately notice the billboards are in Spanish. You walk through the hotel lobby and uncomfortably realize you are the only “gringo” in town. Laredo is small, even smaller for an out-of-town gringo. Everyone, and I mean everyone, speaks Spanish. I took two years of Espanol in college and the only thing I can say is, “Where are the eggs?” That was money well spent.
You arrive at the pre-determined location for the blind date, formally dressed, ready to have a Corona, dance the salsa, and make a quick exit if she’s undesirable. What can I say? It’s a tough world. You look over your shoulder, remembering past stories of kidnapped gringos, drug gangs, Satanic cults. You shiver at the thought and hope you survive with kidneys intact.
Then you see her for the first time. She sits alone at a table and smiles, perfect white teeth, huge almond eyes. Her hair is chocolate brown with blond highlights. She is wearing a black blouse and pants, black boots (with buckles) and a white shawl around her shoulders. She is petite and absolutely stunning. Her legs are crossed in a sophisticated manner. Your heart races while you think to yourself, “I did not expect this!” Amazingly, your hands tremble.
Gabriela sips an apple martini while smoking a cigarette. In Laredo, lots of people smoke. They still have smoking sections in the restaurants. People don’t give you dirty glances if you have a drag. Cab drivers smoke and bartenders smoke. It’s all wonderfully European in a sort of southwest Texas way. Tejano music blares as a waiter walks up to take my order. Gabriela, in perfect Spanish, orders me a beer. She loves to talk, and I can barely get a word in. She tells stories in her wind chime Espanol accent, repeating past conversations verbatim.
“I say, ‘I’m not going tu du dat.’ And den she say ‘Why not?’ And I say…..”
Her stories trail on forever but she enjoys telling them so much they are funny in a weird kind of way. Like making pottery by hand, it requires great patience. She is extremely formal. Gabriela stays in the car after I exit and stroll away, my face flushing red as I realize she is waiting for me to open her door.
It’s a different world in Laredo – a different language spoken in odd, independent restaurants with torn leather chairs. People wear weird, brightly-colored clothes. Cars are not waxed and polished. There are no curbs, which really freaks me out. Gabriela asks me if I would like to go to Mexico. I say, “Yes, of course,” and we literally walk across the old metal/cement bridge spanning the Rio Grande River. Too much of a pain to drive over, easier to leave your car in the States.
She holds my hand without a moment’s hesitation, her small brown fingers wrapped around mine. She wears a silver choker necklace with a dangling cross, noisy bracelets, black turquoise earrings. Only by coincidence were we both similarly adorned, as I wore a black suit. I’m worried we stand out like easy targets, a formally dressed couple holding hands in a foreign country.
Gabriela flags down a cab, and I can tell she knows her way around. We go deeper into Mexico to dine at the El Rincon del Viejo. We are served potato cakes and guacamole, and I drink unknown beer from a small glass. Old women smoke nearby while eating these handmade cakes, sipping the same cloudy beer with pinkies turned skyward. A man with an acoustic guitar walks from table to table, playing lovely songs I have never heard. Gabriela tips him in pesos. Children with similar almond eyes race towards us attempting to sell flowers, teddy bears, bracelets. Gabriela shoos them away, and they realize she’s a local.
I sang karaoke for the first time and failed miserably. She thought it was the funniest thing. Bands play KISS and The Police cover tunes. In between songs band members speak rapid Spanish to the audience. A joke must have been told because everyone laughs. It’s muggy and hot, and Gabriela never breaks a sweat. I see a bar that looks like fun, moving unknowingly in that direction. Gabriela gently pulls my hand.
“You don’t want to go en der,” she laughs.
“Noting but gringos.”
“But I’m a gringo.”
“Yes, but you a gringo wit me.”
I meet her brother and cousin and notice they too are dressed in fashionable clothing. Her family is old-school formal, possessing a quiet pride. They eye me curiously, separating me from Gabriela to talk on a back patio. In this Tiki torch-lit area, men smoke cigars, drinking the same beer from the same type of glass. Everyone stares at the out-of-towner. I realize I am on my own, as Gabriela is telling another one of her endless stories to a girlfriend. The relatives look me over because this has been a part of the process for hundreds of years. I am being sized up and it is all so enchantingly ancient.
“You like mi sister?” her brother asks.
“Yes I do,” I answer.
“She been hurt many times. I don’t want to see her hurt.”
“I will not hurt her.”
“Make sure you don’t,” he says and then buys me a beer.
“I can tell she likes you. Where did you meet?”
I half-lie, “We met here in Laredo. But you should probably ask her. This is kind of our first date.”
The night in Mexico is endless. Everyone seems to know each other. People drink and smoke and cheer when specific Tejano songs are played. I am told it is Spanish rock, “Very popular down here.” I am forced to do The Grind and become physically excited. I walk off the dance floor embarrassed because my slacks are suddenly too tight. Gabriela follows me and we kiss for the first time, in darkness, away from the strobing light. I taste her and there is no smoke, no alcohol, only the noisy bracelets and almond eyes.
We have plans to meet again this weekend, and I cannot wait to dine on potato cakes while sipping the cloudy beer. Gabriela writes everyday, closing each e-mail with “Besitos.” I have learned it means “kisses.” I am astonished because I am now dreaming of nights in the back seat of lime green Buicks, whispering continuously, “Besitos, besitos, besitos.”