“Evidently the only way to find the path is to set fire to my own life.” — Tagore
Theo is in his early fifties when he realizes he no longer enjoys nor believes in the story he is in. Still in exile after twenty years, he wakes up from a forty-year lie, leaves his job and daughter, rids himself of all possessions, and embarks on a journey to rescue his childhood self whom he abandoned for a spurious life of wealth and approbation. Bound to tropical paradise on Mexico’s Pacific shore, Theo’s path is derailed by his father’s declining health and fortune. Away from the ruins of his past, he arrives in a snow blizzard to the remains of his father’s present. Encamped deep in the Northeast wilderness, Theo works through the traumas of his childhood, struggles to regain respect for his bipolar father, and tackles the fundamental questions of human existence. One by one, he topples the illusions, self-delusions, and myths which have guided his life up to that moment. Theo emerges from the fire, transformed.
A riches-to-rags-to-rebirth saga written in the spirit of stories of great self-transcendence, Querencia is like a jungle survival manual left behind by a brave band of hunter gatherers, packed with humor, zany characters, and the wisdom of exalted writers, poets, and sages.
Amid this country’s age of anxiety stirred by disappearing jobs and security, of female ascendancy and men’s resulting despair and muddle about their identity and purpose, the crumble of myths which once held this country together, and the growing environmental threats to human survival – roiled as we are by this murky, turbulent sea, Querencia is a lodestar by which to navigate to saner shores.
Early praise for ‘Querencia‘:
“Your writing makes me laugh, shocks me, moves me, and totally captures my attention. Colorful, witty, interesting, intellectual and fun.” – Betty M.
“So brave of you to bare your soul. When you share what your heart is saying, it causes others to listen to their own.” – Carole H.
“I absolutely love it. I laughed…I shook my head in amazement. I love how it feels like you are talking directly to me. LOVE IT!” – Isabella E.
“I’m finding it hard to stop reading!” – Mary H.
“Only on Chapter 2 of Theo’s Journey, but I am so impressed! The imagery is spot on and your writing is so full of life and energy it’s like you are talking to me. I love the touches of humor sprinkled throughout – I have laughed out loud. It’s wonderful!” – Laurelle A.
“This book made me observe, ponder and reflect, seeing things again for the first time and falling in love with life all over again. This is something no one seems to have time for in today’s world, busy as we are communicating with everyone and everything but ourselves.” – Katie K
Chapter 1: Querencia
In bullfighting, a bull may stake out a Querencia in a part of the ring where he will gather his energies before another charge.
A boy weeps in the dark begging to be set free.
I stand by a sink full of soiled dishes and broken glasses. The remains of more than half a century of living in bad faith. Ashen-faced, the monster of tedium stifles the air I breathe with the death lock of monotony.
Past the window, the lugubrious parade of my denied dreams marches down the road not taken.
Behind me, there are no telling footprints on the stretch of sand on which I have walked all these years.
The ground quakes as my certitudes crumble while the sharpening shrill of Death’s scythe grows louder.
Is it ever too late for reinvention?
My whole life has been a grand spectacle of submissions and impulsive acts. The acts of a false self or those of a desperate man. Never deliberate. Asleep at the helm, my ship has remained adrift, prey to the caprices of weather. Wave-heaved and storm battered, swept by currents of greed, need, envy, or impetuousness, I am not surprised it has run aground and wrecked every few years…why everything I’ve done in life has some weird failure in it.
Will it be different this time?
I’m burned out, surely, but without ever having been on fire. Yet the ashes still smolder with that vague but restless yearning. If only I could make the world stop for a while. Just enough to flee the tossing waves and find a sheltered cove in which to repair my tattered sails before heading back out to sea. But the world never stops its dizzying whirl, and, once again, my impulsiveness has altered my course and led me to a fateful crossroad. All because of eclipses, a flying fish, and a termite-ridden book.
Submit or break free?
Choosing freedom might be the sanest or more damaging decisions of my life. Submission, while safer, would deal the final blow to my lifetime yearning.
Let me explain…
Four years ago, I moved out of my house and divorced.
Three countries, fourteen moves – when will I stop?
Unpacking what must have been two hundred books, I found one, I swear, I don’t recall purchasing. Written sixty years earlier by a man in his early twenties, its dust jacket was torn and most of its pages pinholed. I find that irresistible, as I find ramshackle barns, dark narrow alleys, and olive-skinned women with Byzantine eyes irresistible. The unpacking had to wait.
Reading it caused such upheaval that something cracked. I finally understood what writer Franz Kafka meant when he said that a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. Cracking was the ice that had kept me long numbed in a kind of cryogenic suspension in that dreary sea in which most of us waste our precious time on earth. How many lifetimes do we need to get it right?
For a brief, rapturous span, I felt like a flying fish, breaking free from the stultifying waters in which I swam, purblind among my kind. Soaring above the surface, the atmosphere was electrifying, and the air tasted of expectation, adventure, of life more abundant, and as I looked down, I realized I neither liked, nor believed anymore in the story I was in and yearned to write my own script.
Months later, I chanced upon an enigmatic correspondence between significant events in my life and the 18-year astronomical cycles – called ‘Saros’- that chart the eclipses of the Sun and Moon. It was happening again; another life-changing moment.
I became convinced that at the eve of my Fourth Saros, my fifty-fourth year, Fortune was again moving the tiller to alter my course and that, unlike other times when I have simply allowed circumstance to steer my destiny, this time, I had to either thwart her designs or stop resisting, surrender to her whim and wind, and become her shipmate, no matter the cost. It could well have been a fortune cookie. When you reach the nadir of despair, you’ll cling to anything…believe anything.
So I quit my job and gave up a generous lifetime pension.
And now I’m scared, while I pack.
By this time tomorrow I will be on an Alaskan Airlines jet in route to the coastal town of Sayulita on Mexico’s Pacific shore in search for that calm, sheltered cove. Who knows? It might be the first waystation on my journey across the Fourth Saros of my life.
Didn’t sleep much last night. Ever since I read that book, I figured I would waste enough time once dead, and decided I shouldn’t do so while still alive, so I am usually up by three. This morning though, at one, a vivid dream woke me with a jolt.
A shack by the ocean. Ink-black sky and a raging storm outside. Waves pounding fury on the shore. I was barefoot, shirtless, and sweating; moon-maddened, howling like a wild beast, beating on an old typewriter struggling to bring forth what I felt trapped within my breast-bones; something luminous crying in the dark, swelling to break free.
I wonder if that’s all I need right now, a Querencia. Like water, fractured by a fall, needing to remain still in a tranquil pool just long enough to reconstitute myself before charging ahead again. But charging ahead towards what?
Sayulita was not my plan because I have no plan – A or B – no job, or house of my own, and little savings, so when my friends invited me to come along, I took it as another sign from the Universe; a luring call with visions which matched the dream of that deserted beach crowned by palm trees swayed by a warm breeze and lulled by the waves’ wash, with a nearby shack where I would finally be free to do what I believe I was meant to all my life.
I accepted without hesitation.
We’re planning lots of cool ‘guy stuff’ for the first part of the trip: spearfishing, surfing, drinking, smoking, and likely exchanging locker-room humor. Might the underlying drive impelling such pursuits be but short-lived attempts by us men to make-up for the absence of ecstasy in other spheres of our lives…that familiar burnout feeling. Is that why we go to war?
I question everything. Read too much, feel too much and too deep. Maybe that’s why I suffer. Just think: I was the guy who read Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ on a beach in Belize while on his honeymoon.
For a while I’ve been wrestling to define for myself what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. Somewhere between John Wayne’s macho swagger and the ‘I don’t wanna grow up’ stance of a Japanese Grass-Eater is as far as I have gotten. The answer is urgent because I believe men will soon join the floppy disk, 411, the payphone, and the VCR, if we don’t get our act together.
I don’t consciously choose to burrow through these existential dilemmas. They simply find me, and then demand to be mined, relentlessly lashing my hide until I strike the gold of my own understanding. It’s a curse.
The blame for the issue of masculinity hangs on the horns of an Elk.
It happened during one of my solitary escapes to a beach about an hour from my house. It was cold and foggy that weekday morning. I avoid walks in nature on weekends like you’d skirt a nest of vipers. I don’t like crowds on hikes, or during sex.
As the narrow road curved sharply and rose, I spotted a large silhouette on a small hill shrouded in mist. I pulled over and reached over to the back seat for my camera. It’s the analog kind. I can’t see myself switching to digital, preferring delayed gratification, in photography as in…
I stepped out of the car and advanced toward an imposing Elk Bull materializing through the fog. The animal stood firmly in front of six cows lying on the short, dew dimpled grass. Approaching – stopping and wincing every time I crunched gravel under my shoes – I expected the Elk and his harem to bolt. Instead, with its nostrils steaming, it raised its head and towering rack and fixed me with a poised stare. We were but fifteen feet apart, separated by a three-foot-high weathered wooden fence leaning toward the curb. Only fifteen, yet I felt an unbridgeable chasm between us, and that instead of the short fence, an impenetrable barrier separated me from that noble, powerful presence. It wasn’t a sense of alienation from the natural world; no maudlin pang at the loss of kinship or such other new-age nonsense. I just felt emasculated and diminished.
The Bull kept me locked in sight, so I looked down, my body slumped, shoulders sagged, the camera still in its case pressed against my right leg. I did not dare take the photo. It felt undeserving. With head hung low, I retreated to the car a smaller man than I already am and sped towards Keeho Beach.
As I hiked the mile on the narrow path leading to the ocean, cutting through low, fragrant brush on the left and a ridge to the right dotted with grazing cattle, I could feel myself becoming defiant, angry, near savage. I tried to mimic the fierce intensity of the Elk’s stare but felt foolish and fake.
Then, like bursts of machine-gun fire, I heard these short phrases in my head:
Thunderbolts in my hands! Spear through the black heart of a crow! Orgasms like Supernovas!
My steps slowed as dirt turned to deep, cold sand underfoot. Below, a slow-moving river widened and flowed into the ocean. My spirits lifted as I imagined myself walking across a rugged, sun-drenched landscape down a rocky trail to a secluded beach on a Greek island.
After my businesses collapsed at the start of my third Saros – what I call the Age of the Fisher King – those years in forced exile, lost in the wasteland, I suggested to my wife we live in Greece for a few years to try and make sense of what had happened. There’s something about Greece that has intrigued me for quite some time. Ever since I read Lawrence Durrell describe its landscape as pure nude chastity, and its light, like coming off the heart of some Buddhist blue stone or flower. Always changing, he said, but serene and pure, and lotion-soft on the iris. Or perhaps it was when I came upon his alluring account of the women of the Mediterranean whom he said burn inwardly like altar candles and are the landscape wishes of the earth whose overpowering sensuality have driven great poets to open their veins. I don’t know. Or maybe it was when I first stumbled upon ‘Zorba the Greek’ by writer Kazantzakis, his ‘Report to Greco,’ and the poems of Sikelianos. Earthy and lustful writers…Wild Men. There is danger in reading their words and about their lives, especially for contemporary men…so confused, dispassionate, timid, and afraid. They make our lives seem insipid and uninspiring.
Perhaps one day I’ll discover in Greece my spiritual homeland and finally settle down.
I lumbered down a dune to the solitary vast expanse of sand backdropped by the early steel grayness of the thundering Pacific. Like a shredded veil of a fleeing bride, the fog floated inland in wide, fraying sheets. An old seagull, fray-feathered and with a broken wing, hopped away from an oncoming wave. A mirror-image of myself. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and ambled toward a rock cliff cleaving the ocean.
The voice resumed:
Become Zorba! Carefree, expansive, coarse but gentle, generous, voracious, sensual, uninhibited, incandescent and wild. Spread and lift your arms high up in the air, snap your fingers and stomp, lunge, jump and twirl, as you dance barefoot under the stars.
I couldn’t contain myself, and began muttering, first under breath, and then louder and louder:
I want to carry thunderbolts in my hands. My blood to burn. Dance barefoot in mud while drinking rain. Pluck a slippery fish from an icy stream with bare hands and tear its flesh with my teeth. I want to swim in the ocean and not bathe for months. Push massive boulders down steep, rugged mountains. Prance and lock horns with goats in the Alps. Punch a white shark on its snout and watch it sink, cross-eyed into the abyss. I want to shoot a spear through the black heart of a crow. Women to cower when I look at them with rapacious eyes with the radiance and intensity of stars. I want orgasms like Supernovas. I want to crush pungent leaves and rub them all over my body; I don’t want to smell like soap but loam. I want to throw my shoes into a lake and never retrieve them. I want my flesh to be lacerated by branches, dirt and grime under my nails, fungus eating away at my toenails, heels like sandpaper, and yank snakes from my nostrils. I want to slap the young to wake them from their stupor and then inflame them. I WANT TO KISS A WOMAN WEARING A PLATE INSIDE HER LIPS, HAVE HER DEVOUR MY HEART, SPIT THE SINEW, AND SWALLOW THE BLOODY PULP. I WANT TO COMMUNICATE BY DRUMBEATS, WALK NAKED INTO A FOREST FIRE, BLOW SMOKE ONTO WOMEN’S SMUG FACES WHO REFUSE TO FEED THEIR MEN RAW MEAT. I WANT TO SEW BLOODY FANGS ONTO EVERY CHILD’S CUDDLY TEDDY BEAR. TUMBLE WITH A GIRL WHO WEARS A NECKLACE MADE OF MEN’S SKULLS. I NO LONGER WANT TO TIPTOE MY WAY THROUGH LIFE BUT STOMP. NOT WHISPER BUT BELLOW. I WANT MY TUMULT TO BE HEARD!
I stopped and sat down near the tidemark, shaking, afraid that my dad’s bipolar gene had activated in me and that I was about to unleash the same destructive madness on my family. That I, like him, would end up barricaded one day inside a luxurious hotel suite with a necklace of Bic pens over my bare chest tearing the pages I found heretical from the Bible, defecating on them, and writing my own version on the walls while my wife slept curled inside the lobby’s bathroom and the night clerk dialed the local police to break down the door and arrest me.
Breathing easier, I thought it possible that Hitler might have infected my father the day he tousled his hair at age six when he stood in formation among other kids of the Hitler Youth watching the Führer stride past, inspecting the sacks of animal bones they were ordered to collect from neighborhood butchers which were crushed to extract lubricating oil for the planes of the Luftwaffe.
It also thought of those grisly nights inside a German lakeside mansion where my grandfather sliced open the chests of doves to spatter blood on the naked bodies of women.
Might those events…Dad’s plunge into bipolar chaos, Grandfather’s penchant for the occult, my Great Aunt’s tragic suicide, Mom’s fantasies, despair, and addiction…might all this have anything to do with the way my life has turned out? I need time to sort out all this muck and piece together all the broken dishes and glasses.
I’m done packing. At least I think I have everything. Too much actually. I saddle myself with the backpack and realize how painful it will be to carry on my shoulders. I’m starting to sicken from all the stuff we accumulate. Like a stealthy vine, our junk coils itself around our lives and slowly tightens its suffocating grip until we are weighed down by an invisible anchor.
Why so many shirts and shorts? All the time wasted matching them. It’s all vanity, and that pathetic and fruitless, middle-aged struggle to remain physically alluring.
I’m not – at least should not be – thinking about the women I might meet in Sayulita. After my friends fly back home, the purpose of staying behind is to determine if it’s the right place for me. I can’t get distracted. Besides, I have girlfriend now. Bad timing for sure. I have nothing to offer her. But this time around I wasn’t looking. She came back into my life after thirty years, easing the cutting pain I still feel after my reckless dalliance with Nelinha.
When the heart is still shaken by the remains of a passion, we are more likely to yield to a fresh one than when we are quite cured, wrote the Frenchman La Rochefoucauld. And what did I do? Jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. Of what use, I ask, is all the wisdom I’ve supposedly accumulated if it remains mute and won’t throw me a lifesaver when most needed?
Flagrant symptoms of my unmanageable impetuousness or preceding loneliness, those two. One married, with three children, the other recently divorced from a man of great wealth who accustomed her to a life of luxury. And here I am, considering breaking free and journeying to an ill-defined destination, with little money and no real future, entangling myself once again before even departing. Brilliant…
Outside my bedroom window the broad maple tree is beginning to blush. I’d miss this place should I decide to leave for good. More so, and above anything, I ‘d miss my younger daughter. What will happen to her if I leave?
Submit of break free?
Not sure yet, but at least I must find out if Sayulita holds a clue to whether this supposed call to a new life is real or just another fanciful notion of mine.
I must go.
Chapter 2 – Hope Your Dreams Don’t Fall Asleep
“May I ask you a delicate question?”
“Sure.” I said.
“Are you suffering from some sort of mental illness?”
Scanning the shelves at Staples for the green binder my daughter asked me to purchase, I pulled the cell phone away from my ear and laughed, then resumed the conversation with the man fifteen hundred miles away.
“I don’t think so. If anything, I feel more awake.”
As soon as I told my friends I would join their expedition I vowed to travel with the eyes of my spirit wide open to the possibility that Sayulita could be my Querencia. It didn’t hurt her case that some websites claimed her name to be Nahuatl for ‘Little Girl from the Sea’, rather than the true ‘Place were Flies are Abundant’. Had I been more diligent in my research, who knows where I’d be now. Tempting me further, besides the tropical allure, was the almost-certain probability of spearfishing in blue-water amid a tuna run. But what really stunned me – what told me I might be receiving a real, clear call from the Universe, was a difference of just thirty miles.
If I were to move, my younger daughter would remain in the Bay Area, fifteen hundred and fifty-eight miles North from the tiny hut I reserved on Airbnb for the second part of the trip. My girlfriend, on the other hand, would be South, fifteen hundred and ninety miles away. A mere difference of thirty miles, or twelve minutes in flight-time, could not be coincidental.
Having once read that the moment one definitively commits, then providence moves too; that boldness has genius, power, and magic in it, I began telling everyone what I was considering, and soon, had been referred to several people living in the area, Lucas among them, tactfully inquiring about my mental health over the phone.
As I roamed the aisles looking for the three-inch binder, I tried to explain to Lucas what I’m looking for: how I’d walked away from my job giving up more than three-quarters of a generous life-time pension – a juicy carrot, dangled and mine to seize, in exchange for chewing on the bit for ten more years with blinkered eyes. That I was thinking of surrendering my possessions and moving should Sayulita resonate with me. I’d need a job right away but didn’t care what kind – the more mindless and physical the better. With the boldness of a seasoned hunter, I told Lucas how I planned on feeding myself mostly from the ocean, so the pay wasn’t that important.
I should have kept in mind I wasn’t chatting with someone from Marin County at an outdoor café sipping on a Kombucha cocktail in a mason jar and snacking on roasted kale chips dusted with Tibetan sea salt blessed by the Dalai Lama himself, but talking to a Mexican. That would have stopped me from mentioning eclipses and Saros and twelve-minute serendipities, and instead, been more levelheaded and upfront, and told Lucas that other than cooking, my practical skills, fishing included, are close to nil. Having been raised in a country and station that afforded me the ease of never having to work with my hands – a luxury I now see as my greatest limitation – my capacities for survival are lodged in my brain.
“Don’t worry.” Lucas said with that smooth hustler’s tone. “Call me as soon as you land and we’ll get together to figure it out.”
With the stars properly aligning and all the pieces falling smoothly into place, I am in a spirited mood as I watch the weekday commuters on the drive to the airport.
“Do it!” my friend spurs me, as we inch our way across the Golden Gate bridge. “A friend of mine recently told me about someone who quit his high-paying job years ago to search for treasure off the North Carolina coast. Seems a distant relative of his was a daring and successful pirate. I don’t remember if the family found a map, or how exactly he knew the location of the sunken ship, but he just did it, and is still at it. And not for the money. I think he’s donating the entire haul. He did it just for the thrill. The hell with all this! I would if I could. I’m sure many would pay to hear your story. Since too many are afraid, at least they’ll live out their fantasies through you.”
Inches above the swell, a Pelican flock glides westward. Riding over the waves’ shook-foil glitter, it rises, falls, rises again; each bird attuned to the flock’s intention. A sailboat leans toward the rock cliff on which stands the Point Bonita Lighthouse. All sails unfurled, she too heads west, to sea. I think of writer Jack London as a fourteen-year-old on the skiff he purchased from the money he earned as a newsboy. Desiring, as he said, to taste the salt spray for himself, wanting to get away from monotony and the commonplace.
I set sail, he wrote, casting off, taking my place at the tiller, the sheet in my hand, and headed across channel. I was no boy of fourteen, living the mediocre ways of the sleepy town called Oakland. I was a man, a god, and the very elements rendered me allegiance as I bitted them to my will. At last I was living.
When was the last time I felt that way?
As he taught himself to sail, Jack’s skiff became a place of contemplative solitude, where he would read and think, his young mind hungering to ponder the big questions of life, measuring possible answers by his one sure test: “Will I trust my life to it?”
His own Querencia, I suppose.
As I stare at the grim faces inside the jammed cars rolling at a snail’s pace across the vermillion expanse of the bridge toward the skyscrapered antheap , I imagine myself inside the tiny shack by the ocean I dreamt about, smashing everything: all the ideals, illusions, mythologies; the supposed truths and isms I have accepted without question, and then asking anew: What constitutes a live well-lived? What does it mean to truly love? Who is a good father? What is man’s role in this century of female ascendancy? How do we come to terms with the angel in ourselves and the devil in ourselves? Are the Self and happiness only illusions? Can we die with valor and dignity, without regrets? Can we rid ourselves of the straightjackets sewn by our own hand?
As we cross the toll booth, I see myself as the guy who is still out there, off the North Carolina coast, hunting for treasure, but of a different kind. My gold, if I am to find it, is to be a new orientation to life; my very own, forged in the crucible of my unique understanding. And if lucky, if the universe grants me a few more breaths of salty air, I must also share the haul.
“I don’t think fear is what holds us back,” I tell my friend. “If it were, it would mean that at least we are examining our condition. Maybe we are enchained and don’t realize it, or have stopped questioning, so the suggestion we let go of what imprisons us sounds oddly like a sacrifice. Because they’ve become so familiar…those chains, we prefer them to a life of uncertainty. We much rather feel secure than vulnerable without our fixed moorings; lost and unremarkable without all our stuff. If we only realized that the word security originally meant being free of care, those chains would dissolve without causing us pain.”
In line at the security checkpoint, I text my younger daughter: “Stay strong, beautiful, original, and funny as you’ve always been.” I feel as if I am shedding old skin.
Seat 22D. Always the aisle seat. I urinate with worrying frequency, but it’s now more like milking a tired, uncooperative snake. Beside me sits a young Asian girl in short, loose shorts. Her sing-song, nasal, valley-girl voice seems almost feigned; it is that true to the stereotype. A bachelorette party boards. Bride-to-be appears hungover. As soon as the plane begins to taxi, many of the passengers break out into cheers: “A-ya-yay! Mexico baby!” I roll my eyes but fill the thrill.
My two friends sit in the back on the aisle and window seats. Wedged between, sits a late-thirties redhead with more facial hair than me. As the wine keeps pouring, their voices and laughter become louder.
My British friend’s accent is unmistakable and irresistible. I recall – with envy – the many instances that silky, sticky gift of his lured women at bars, while my Hispanic one – who many think Canadian – has never worked that magic, no matter how thick I lay it. He imbues even the most trivial utterance with commanding gravitas. Handsome as well, the bugger!
I close my eyes and doze. A slap in the arm wakes me up. My friend (the non-British one), stands…just barely, and grins. “I think Stephanie is becoming annoyed with us but seems to be enjoying our humor.” He slurs.
I envy this guy too. A cross-fit junkie, along with other extreme physical challenges: kite-surfing, spearfishing, diving for abalone in frigid, dangerous waters. He recently purchased a hunting rifle and soon plans to roam the Sonoma hills shooting wild pigs. A self-made, successful entrepreneur to boot!
Whereas before, turbulence would have unsettled me, I am unfazed by the plane’s drops, bumps, heaves and lurches as we approach the landing strip at Puerto Vallarta. I think I am losing my fear of death. Or am I harboring a death wish?
The airplane door opens, and a hot, humid air-blast fills the interior.
My friends want to wait for Steffanie to deplane along with her seventeen nurse colleagues. I am in a hurry to get to Sayulita but must confess I make my mental pick from the eighteen-nurse lineup right behind us as we pass immigration. The shortest one, with the lively hazel eyes.
After clearing customs, we walk across a wide, high-ceilinged bright corridor crowded with hawkers besieging newcomers with offers of sailing excursions, taxis, hotels, free cocktails, and fishing expeditions. It is the tail-end of the low tourist season and locals are desperate; they are running on fumes and their children are hungry. How would I survive here?
Heriberto, our chauffer, greets us at the exit. Tall, corpulent, cheerful, obsequious, with short, black spiky hair and the signature thick mustache and Guayabera shirt. “!Bienvenidos a Méjico!” He says.
Everyone shakes his hand. It’s firm…trustworthy.
We pass the town of Bucerias – sprawling and chaotic. I miss chaos. It sharpens my senses, quickens my pulse, and makes me more resourceful. Bucerias is where I’ll spend three days on my own after my friends fly back, staying in a Palapa I found on Airbnb for sixty bucks a night. No photo of the hut or surroundings on the property’s profile. Just a fuzzy image of a sunrise over a mountain range behind a tranquil body of water. But sixty bucks is more than I can afford right now. Much like dietary restrictions, choices are for the rich, I reminded himself as I clicked on the “Confirm” button. After receiving my email explaining what I seek (becoming a writer, maybe opening a tiny restaurant with my girlfriend, finding my tribe), the hostess vowed she’d convince me to become an expat.
That word does not resonate in me. I feel rootless. No longer suffer from nostalgia for the country in which I was born and raised. Nor feel the pain on the side of country exiles talk about. Why? I wonder.
And the thought of leaving the U.S. in which I have lived in self-imposed exile for twenty years; the country in which I raised my daughters – the thought of letting go doesn’t stir feelings of great loss either. True, I have become intimate with the natural beauty of the area in which I live: the ocean, its swirling fog, its mountains and crystalline lakes, the sunburnt ochre hills in summer, the diffuse humor of its seasons, its proximate wildlife: mountain lions, bobcats, hawks, coyotes…my soul has been nourished by it all, especially in times of great despair. I know I will miss it, but something stronger is impelling me to leave, and my roots have not sunk deep enough to keep me anchored.
Perhaps I was born to be a vagabond…at home everywhere. Hydroponic? Out of place, like a flying fish. There is a Greek word for this: atopos. But beyond ‘out of place,’ it also means ‘disturbing’ or ‘perplexing.’
Costica Bradatan, the author of ‘Dying for Ideas,’ wrote that the more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old ‘truths,’ which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind. Exiles always travel light. There is in every community something that must remain unsaid, unnamed, unuttered; and you signal your belonging to that community precisely by participating in the general silence. Revealing everything, telling all, is a foreigner’s job. Either because foreigners do not know the local cultural codes or because they are not bound to respect them, they can afford to be outspoken. I like the term Bradatan uses: ‘Metaphysical Gypsy.’
As we ride across the foothills of the imposing mountain range of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the road narrows and cuts through dense jungle on both sides. My friends are glued to their phones; I am awestruck by the lushness. One of them shows us photos of two of his buddies in camouflaged hunting attire (smeared face paint, thumbs up) over dead Bison and Bighorn sheep killed with bow and arrow somewhere in Montana. Trying to make contact with the Wild Man, I think to myself, recalling the book by Robert Bly I read long ago in which he said that the true radiant energy of the male does not hide in, reside in, or waits for us in the feminine realm, nor in the macho, but in the magnetic field of the deep masculine. The key to the cage where the Wild Man is imprisoned is hidden under the Mother’s pillow, Bly proposed.
I spin Bly’s phrase ‘under the Mother’s pillow’ in my head as we turn left into the town of Sayulita and wonder if he was referring to that secret place where mothers’ store their expectations of how their sons ought to behave. Where they hide their tools – the athames, pentacles, wands, cauldrons, chalices, thuribles, and spell books – to tame and domesticate the masculine spirit? Is this the reason so many young men turn savage, rather than wild? And since we’ve locked up our tribal elders in senior living communities, there is no one to prowl the American suburbs and cities snatching teenage boys in the middle of the night from their comfortable beds and glowing screens to lead them to the Holy Forest, away from Mother, to have them die as children and reborn as men. And even if we did release them; if once again we gave our elder men their due, their rightful place, I suspect most would not know what to do…how to guide the young. Uninitiated themselves, they’d still be nursing their own inner wounded child while perfecting their golf swing.
The road narrows further. The van crosses a flooded part where the river has broken its bank, swelled by a heavy storm the night before. We arrive at the property we’ve rented for the next three days. It’s spacious, and its décor, of exquisite bad taste, makes a failed attempt to achieve the ‘Mexican’ feel.
I step out to one of the partially-shaded patios to smoke a cigarette. I can hear the surf close by. Up in the wide tree canopies, parakeets shriek as they feast on fruit, making small pieces of peel rain on my head. From the wall behind me and within the palm-thatched roof, the distinct chirp of Geckos. The intense heat and dense humid air accelerate the burn of my cigarette.
Before dinner, we head to the ocean for a swim. The water is invitingly warm, almost too warm. The swells are high, the sun setting, lending a peach complexion to the pristine sand. As I face inland, my gaze scans the long stretch heading away from the town’s hub. “A glimpse of immaculate sand that awaits my footprints,” I quote in my head.
“This is the life!” One of my friends shouts over the roar. “This, is why we work so hard!”
As I wait for the right wave to bodysurf back to shore, I feel outraged. Seriously? Must we now work eight, twelve, sometimes more hours just so we can float and frolic once, maybe twice a year? To give up no less than a third of our lives for simple pleasures which have always been within our reach, for free?
A shower, and we head into town for dinner. I become alert, receptive to any signal that might tell me if I am on the right path.
We crisscross flooded, poorly-lit streets and walk over a bridge to the town’s Zocalo, or central plaza. Flanked by dense vegetation, the river below flows languorously into the ocean reflecting mauve and steel gray clouds. On one of the bridge’s concrete parapet walls, in faded green letters, I read: HOPE YOUR DREAMS DON’T FALL ASLEEP making my hair stand on end with anticipation.
The main street leading to the town’s center is intersected by shorter ones – dirt and cobblestone – leading to the beach, some palm-lined and festooned with pastel color paper flags fluttering with the late afternoon breeze. Like scattered M&M’s, bright-colored structures lend the town a festive and dangerously alluring atmosphere.
I remind himself to not fall prey to tropical hypnosis. My quest is for a Querencia, not for a strung hammock and a frozen Margarita.
Chapter 3: Mexican Yoda
A sour geyser wells up my throat and jolts me at five in the morning with the lees of tequila and fiery Devil Shrimp sauce left over from last night’s dinner. I reach for my eyeglasses, climb out of bed and tiptoe in the dark to the condo’s kitchen. I make coffee and warmup two Mexican Conchas sweetening the air with the smell of sugar, butter, and toasted bread flour. I turn on my laptop to post on my journey’s log book:
I’m here, but unsure what to think of the place. People are certainly welcoming and gracious. All smiles and hospitality. But Sayulita seems like every other quaint, lively beach town, with its streetside cafes, bars and restaurants with glowing patio lights, the yoga and tattoo studios, the t-shirt and trinket shops. Groups of young surfers huddled on the beach under makeshift awnings watching friends ride the waves. Dreadlocks…blaring rap music…the skunky smell. I could be anywhere. Not quite fitting this fanciful notion I dreamt-up for my Querencia:
A rustic shack – bright, airy, uncluttered – perched on a small hill by the sea. By a large open window, a small writing desk flanked by bookshelves, filled with books. The ocean’s seductive voice beckoning. A trail leading down to the beach on which a landed dugout canoe is tied to a palm tree. The canoe, white with seafoam trimmings, loaded with a casting net, speargun, and diving gear. By the shack, a small garden with a pergola weighed by flowering vines casting their scented shade over a long, roughhewn, wooden table: the hub of comradeship – of prolonged meals and conversations – gathering loved ones and friends. Often visited by the occasional wanderer, staying with us for a few days, delighting us with tales of her adventures before setting off again. Or even more generous, serving us the wounds she’s suffered in life’s honorable combat for us to dig our forks and knives into, consuming and nourishing ourselves from her suffering and victories. Next to the table a stone fire ring, serving first as grilling pit to cook the day’s catch, and then, as the night wears on and the sky dusts with starlight, drawing everyone around its warmth, to drink, sing, dance, laugh and weep, as we grapple with the enigmas of life and love. A small town nearby, reached by foot, bicycle, boat. Its streets preferably paved with cobblestones to slow everyone down. Where its inhabitants wake up with genuine smiles and goodwill, always willing to lend a shoulder, asking neighbors not “how are you” but “how are you not,” more interested in what we lack or need than what we have, hoping for the chance to give of themselves to fill our voids. A love transfusion, if you will. A town whose main din comes from the raucous laughter of children and folksongs of fishermen heading to work. The women with their skin somewhat concealed to reveal their mystery, arousing desire, not lust. Where young men strive to be men, and old men wear their age proudly, lavishly dispensing the ripe fruit of their wisdom to the young. Where everyone is afflicted by philoxenia, the ancient belief that anyone who knocks on your door could be a god or angel in disguise, and thus, must be welcomed as one would a dear friend or loved one.
A dog barks. Wakes up the rest. Pandemonium breaks out. Dogs don’t bark much in the U.S. Why so? Are they mimicking their tightly wound owners who don’t much laugh, or weep without restrain? Makes me recall what H.L. Mencken wrote about Puritans: that they have the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere, may be enjoying themselves. I’m also reminded about the time we were driving across a small coastal town in Guatemala on one of our annual, summer trips back home. My younger daughter, who must’ve been six at the time, kept looking out the window and asked: “Why do people here laugh so much if they are so poor?”
A cock crows. A bus lurches across the puddled road past the main entrance to the condo filling the air with the familiar hiss and squeal of its air-brakes and the groan of its shock-absorbers. Just how quiet do I need it to be in order to write? It is offseason. Imagine what it will be like when the snowbirds descend on the place. And it’s already oppressively hot and humid. Could I write in these conditions? And when the hell did I acquire the Goldilocks Syndrome? Too-hot-too-cold, too-hard-too-soft, too-big-too-small. Cities of Gold, Fountains of Youth, Holy Grails…ideals, illusions, utopias – the stuff of crusading zealots, romantic knights, and wild-eyed explorers. I must strip them off!
I should take a dip in the ocean, but we leave at eight to slaughter some unsuspecting fish.
I close my laptop and begin to prepare breakfast for my friends: scrambled eggs with chorizo, refried beans, and tortillas. The inviting scent drags them one-by-one out of the rooms, tottering like haggard mummies into the dining area.
Our driver, Heriberto, shows up punctually in a powder-blue Guayabera; his hair gel-tamed and shiny, the van redolent of Old Spice aftershave (“If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist” was the brand’s slogan. The promise of instant manliness and sex-appeal inside its trademark, nautical bottle).
Across paved, heat-shimmering roads, Heriberto drives us forty minutes to the town of Punta de Mita to meet up with our free-diving guides, Pedro and Arturo.
They teach us how to load and handle the spearguns – wooden, long, and menacing. What are we hunting for, whales? Not like the small one with a trident point I used during our diving trips with Dad and my brothers. We fit our masks, fins, tight Lycra shirts with chest-loading pads, and weight-belts.
A blue sky with a scattering of high clouds vaults above as we walk towards the rocky shore where our small, open boat awaits. I am struck again by the majesty of the Sierra Madre Mountains surging to the South in successive tiers of imperial blueness from the fathomless rainforest of El Tuito – Nahuatl for ‘Place of Gods.’ Staring across Banderas Bay at those jungle-clad mountains, I feel an inscrutable, primal tug, and resolve to explore them first thing if I were to move here. I would later learn that I was staring straight at the beach town of Mismaloya, the main set for the John Houston movie ‘The Night of the Iguana’ based on the work of playwright Tennessee Williams, starring Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, and Sue Lyon.
At fourteen, Lyon was cast in the role of Lolita, the sexually-precocious protagonist in Nabokov’s novel. Lyon first married Hampton Fancher, who in his early teens, ran away to Spain to become a flamenco dancer. She then married famous black football player Roland Harrison. Lyon would go on to marry three more times. My grandmother almost doubled her record.
Lyon and Harrison had a daughter, Nona, whom Lyon kicked out of the house at age twelve. A year later, Nona was taken to a half-way house, and later interned in an insane asylum. She’s fine now, writing her memoir.
The human spirit is incredibly resilient. We worry too much about our children. We hover over and protect them too much. Burden them with too much. We want to shield them from all danger and uncertainty, and pave for them a frictionless road to the land of plenty and lifelong bliss. Never tested, they hardly shine. Not surprised that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America.
Norman Douglas, author of ‘South Wind,’ noted that the children than have the most fun, the children who are most inventive, are those who have absolutely nothing to play with. Growing up in Guatemala, I remember how I envied the shoe-shine kids that plied the meandering paths of the park in front of my house; how they laughed as they raced behind discarded bicycle rims, deftly propelling and balancing them with long sticks held by their stained hands.
“Children have two advantages,” current-day philosopher Alain de Botton says: “they don’t know what they are supposed to like, and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value for them.” They do things out of sheer delight in the here and now.
Become like children and you will enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said.
Out first dive is in shallow unruffled water close to shore. I slip into my fins, place the mask over my face, bite down on the snorkel’s mouthpiece, and slide off the side of the boat. Warm saltwater fills my mouth. I bob gently and wave my fins to stay above surface. Arturo tosses my speargun into the water. I load it with great effort against the chest pad on my neon-blue shirt and move out on my own, away from the group. The visibility is good. From above, I scan the fringing reef twenty feet under. Several shoals dart, glide across, and trace lazy circles around and under the manifold coral formations – a bustling calcium carbonate city of swaying fans, antlers, pillars (like the tubes of church organs), stacked plates, and massive brainshaped colonies in a dazzling array of colors; an almost-complete painter’s palette daubed with a kaleidoscope of pink, orange, deep red, pale yellow, purple, sugar-white.
I dive, stopping at about fifteen feet, remaining upright in quiescent suspension hoping I can still manage to stay down long enough for a kill. Not a sound, except my heartbeat and the crackle from fish feeding off the coral. The silence engulfing me feels safe…a briny womb. Mesmerized by all the life around me I stay underwater longer than I should and start to grunt as my body exhausts the oxygen reserve in my lungs. I dash to the surface feeling like a young boy again.
We drift the reef twice, and a few hours later, have enough fish for lunch.
I did not catch anything; everything looked too small and beautiful. I’ll starve here if I don’t brittle my sensitivities. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot at anything, big and small. Heck! Even if I come across that cutesy, little rainbow fish from that children’s book. You know the one…the selfless tiny fish who shares his shiny scales with his buddies, keeping only one for himself. That one. I’ll pulverize the fucker with my gun! Besides, one of my friends caught most of our haul for the day igniting my male competitiveness. The game is on.
We bring our catch to one of the restaurants by the beach. It returns to our table part pickled in a tangy ceviche, the others fried to a perfect crisp. The restaurant is empty except for a shirtless, sunburnt, balding, middle-aged American ex-pat sitting behind us sipping on what I calculate to be his tenth beer based not only by the empty-bottle count, but by the sheen in his eyes, and the way in which their washed out blue irises glide in torpid, haphazard orbits across bloodshot sclerae. That, and the crooked drop of his lower lip as he laughs at his own vapid jokes. With bare feet wide apart, arms resting heavily on his lap and potbelly spilling over his crotch, the man attempts to engage anyone with a minute to spare and willingness to listen. The waiters treat him with familiar, polite tolerance drawn with thin smiles of commiseration, so it appears he is a regular at the joint. We attempt to ignore him as he rattles on about the services he provides other wannabe expats in paradise: car importation, cheap rentals, moving services. Not quite fitting the free, zany, vivacious, and interesting people I hope to encounter at the next waystation in my life.
We head back to Sayulita for a nap, then walk down the crowded beach. We sit at a white plastic table set on sand in front of one of the beachside restaurants. Order drinks and a platter of grilled octopus in garlic sauce.
Entertaining two men sitting one table over, a wizened local with a tattered straw hat plays a guitar connected to a rusted red amplifier by his feet. The guy at the head of the table stands, tequila bottle in hand, and begins to follow the corny song with a pretty decent baritone voice that makes many turn their heads.
‘Acá entre nos, quiero que sepas la verdad: no te he dejado de adorar.’ (Between you and me, I want you to know the truth: I have not stopped adoring you). I brood melancholy and text the lyrics to my girlfriend while doubts whirl in my head.
What if she doesn’t go along with this half-baked idea of mine of leaving everything behind – my house, my job, pension, car, my stuff – in search of what is still a nebulous aspiration? This spread-eagled jump into the unknown. Will my decision prove what writer Lawrence Durrell speculated: that man is made of both clay and spirit and no woman can nourish both, making me lose her as a result?
I spin the word in my head like a heavy marble.
‘Losing’ presupposes prior possession. Not what I want. My love for her must reach such a degree of selflessness that would make me rejoice should she find her happiness elsewhere, or with someone else. Isn’t jealousy but insecure, self-love? I must not allow my concern to widen beyond her wellbeing. That is, if I truly love her.
The old musician plays a livelier song. The growing crowd joins with claps, whistles, and cheers. The baritone’s gay friend – bright eyed and tubby – stands, and begins to sway his wide hips, stretching his knee-length shorts printed with leaping pink dolphins to their maximum extension. I’ve seen this before…six years old, at the Reforma movie theater in Guatemala. The Dance of the Hippopotamus, in Disney’s ‘Fantasia.’
A soft breeze flows warm as the sun begins to set behind the surfers angling across the waves cresting in front of a blood-orange horizon. A young lesbian couple lies in the sand close to where we sit. The more beautiful one rests her head on her girlfriend’s lap, cascading long, soft auburn curls over her thighs. A tight, sleeveless crop-top accentuates her shoulder’s musculature and firmness of her breasts. She extends one arched bare foot and rests it against a cooler. Digs the other into the sand and flips her toes. Her girlfriend places her left hand on her exposed stomach and pets her over and around the bellybutton, softly splaying and closing her fingers over her tanned skin, gliding them downward with every pass, moving closer, then daringly beyond the edge of her black hipster swimsuit bottom. All the while, she plays with her girlfriend’s hair and kisses her head.
Inside the open restaurant behind us, tone-deaf people are singing boleros: those maudlin, Latin love ballads in which neither man or woman appear able to live or be complete without the other. The bearded, gentle-eyed, husky fellow we encountered the night before moves from table to table hoping to shake a few pesos by impressing customers with his dreadful whistling skills, blowing downward into his cupped hands attempting to mimic several bird calls.
I could use that talent to survive, once improved.
His clothes are soiled, and he looks stoned and bewildered. But he’s polite, his smile benevolent, and every time they hand him a crumpled bill or loose change – even when they ignore him or shoo him off with upturned palm or a flicker – he places his hands together, prayer like over his chest, and bows with grace. What a pity, Henry Miller once wrote, that ours is not a society which permits a man to squander his days and rewards him with a crust of bread and thimbleful of whisky for keeping his tail clear of trouble and ennui.
A steady stream of beach hawkers makes its pilgrimage around the tables offering silver jewelry, hammocks, wood carvings, clay whistles. Maybe I could survive here bartering stories for a shrimp taco and a cold beer: A poem Meester for the beautiful señorita?
Also working the tables is the occasional stealthy purveyor of marijuana, muttering under breath: “Ju wanna pot?”
And dogs. So many sniffing, panting strays, scratching their scabies and poking about the sand in search of scraps.
Right after the old musician finishes, a band of roving drummers installs itself, facing inland, on a level patch of sand as Venus appears low on the darkening horizon. They light a semicircle of torches behind them. A short, dark-skinned girl strikes and shakes a tambourine, flashing her bright smile to call everyone’s attention. Her teeth are the size and color of Chiclets. Indigo harem pants and midriff blouse; large, silver hoop earrings, and a stack of bracelets running all the way to her upper right arm. The youngest male drummer whoops and begins a seductive thumping beat on the Djembe drum hanging from his neck and over his bare, muscular, tattooed chest and abdomen. The other drummers follow. The girl closes her bright black eyes and undulates her arms and hips in sinuous lateral waves. I am enthralled, bewitched. She triggers that archetypal ‘attractor switch’ that has caused me so much trouble in life. The one that impelled me towards Nelinha not long ago.
We pay the bill, and head towards the town’s plaza. A strident brass band plays in its central gazebo. Street vendors stand by illuminated food carts lining the sidewalks, scenting the air with piquant aromas. My mouths waters at the sight of sizzling green chiles wrapped in bacon, oozing melted white cheese that bubbles, browns, and crisps upon contact with the cast iron griddle laying over red hot, smoking coals. We must try this, I tell my friends.
Chiles in hand, we make our way back to the condo, making a final stop at an Al Pastor taco truck for a final bite. The cook stands in front of a vertical grill, spinning a hunk of tiger-orange, adobo marinated pork, charred in spots and dripping fat. A pineapple chunk is skewered above the glowing grill. He glides his butcher’s knife across the meat, and sets the thin, juicy slices over freshly-made corn tortillas resting on a plastic plate he holds with his left hand. He then nips a small slice of the pineapple, and with a flick of the knife, sends it flying onto the plate without bothering to check its trajectory. I scan the floor beneath the cook, admiring that there is not one piece on the ground that has missed the target. I could use this skill too. Any skill to survive.
Before bed, we sit around the living room under rapidly-spinning overhead fans. Like butchers after a long, blood-spattered day at work, the conversation revolves around the cuts of the female anatomy which had been on display under scant covering at the beach. A beef chart projects inside my head with a cow in the middle, its flank dissected with dashed white lines. From each section – chuck, flank, sirloin – black lines are drawn towards the corresponding grouping of images of the specific cuts of meat found in each part of the animal’s body: blade chuck, shoulder roast, bottom round rump.
“What about the _________ of the girl in the black thong, eh?”
“But did you see the _________ of the one walking to her right? Jeeeezus!”
“I kind’a liked the exquisitely-toned shoulders of the lesbian beauty.” I add. “They reminded me of Jennifer Aniston’s. I find her shoulders and arms incredibly alluring.”
They all lift their eyes away from their phones and look at me with disbelief.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” One of them shouts, raising his arms.
“What!” I strike back, shaking my head, arms outstretched with open palms as if I was getting ready to recite the ‘Our Father’ while leaning backwards against the chair, “I like shoulders, so what?”
I recall the time my Dad and I were waiting by the parking lot of a burger joint in Massachusetts. Already in his late-seventies, I caught him checking-out a young blonde in a tight yellow miniskirt strutting past us and nudged him. “Thoughts?” I asked.
“Not thinking at all. Just imagining her thick, golden mane splayed across my pillow.” He whispered, reminding me of something I once read written by John Cowper Powys: “My own feelings were touched with a kind of quivering poetry of lust, a soft melting, ravishing, spring-like tenderness of lust, that was the extreme opposite pole from all indecency. It was always a surprise to me, and is so still, that people can find in them to introduce the element of the gross, of the humorous, of the obscene, of the indecent, into any pleasant pandering to our legitimate desire for the satisfaction of the lust of the eye. What I call lust is an intense, ecstatic contemplation of beauty.”
Perhaps writer Stephen Marche is on to something when he calculates the quantity of locker-room talk to be inversely proportional to men’s familiarity with women. Or Cowper Powys, again, when he asks all men: “Why should you feel that it is your manly duty when you are absorbed in delight at the contemplation of a young woman’s limbs to be funny about it? I suspect that this linking up of sensuality with the comic has some deep pathological cause. Probably it springs from the normal man’s instinct of self-preservation when he finds himself caught out of himself!”
A few minutes before dawn the following day, I step out to smoke a cigarette. The sky is clear, Orion straight up, a half-moon smiling, the neighbor’s cock crows.
Across the white exterior wall of one of the bungalows, a beam of light glides, then stops. The rusted wrought-iron gate to the complex squeals open. A light blue, open buggy rolls in and parks. A man in his late fifties gets off.
From the start of the trip, I vowed to speak with anyone and pay careful attention, so begin a conversation by complimenting his sensible choice of vehicle.
“It’s practical.” He says, nodding, as he walks towards me with outstretched hand.
I stub my cigarette against the wall and wipe my fingers on my tan linen pants. I shake his hand.
He’s clean-shaven, in good shape, and smartly dressed in a long sleeved white Polo shirt and tapered khaki shorts. Bronzed, clear skin. Salt and pepper thick eyebrows arching gently over luminous blue eyes. Thick crop of short wavy white hair splashed with black brushstrokes. The man shakes my hand.
“Enrique, un placer.”
The serenity in his countenance, his firm handshake and tranquil bearing briefly startles me, but then a warm feeling sets in. I feel relaxed, allowed to be myself. Absent is the posturing that occurs when men meet who are strangers to each other: the stiff guardedness; that impenetrable armor of invulnerability that we wear to protect ourselves, the brittle husk that blocks any meaningful conversation. Maybe that’s the locus of misogyny: the place to where men escape when frightened by their need for tenderness.
“You live here?” I begin.
“What do you think of it? I am thinking about moving here soon.”
“Depends on what you are looking for.”
That nagging question again: What am I looking for?
“I’m a writer…of sorts.” While still ambivalent, it is the first time I have used this appellative to describe myself. “I have several unfinished projects and looking for a quiet place to finish them.”
It’s quiet now, but once the tourist season begins next month it’ll be anything but quiet.” Enrique says.
“What other places do you suggest I look at? I’ve heard of San Pancho. More tranquil they tell me. Smaller.
“What’s wrong with the place you live in now?”
The coral hue of dawn matches the peaceful glow on Enrique’s face. It intrigues me. He seems like a man who has come to terms with life’s hardships.
I rub my fingers over my constantly-furrowed brow and light another cigarette.
“Nothing wrong, really.” I explain. “In fact, quite the contrary: it is too perfect, too orderly. Antiseptic is the only word I can think of. Without texture, or depth. A place of more-and-more entertainment and less-and-less joy. In any case, the amount of life one must give up in order to afford living there is a price I am no longer willing to pay. Where I come from, you’ll mostly encounter people working feverishly, compulsively racing…too busy, always busy…way too busy, in a kind of aggressive haste, knocking against each other, overwhelmed, our brains on overload zapped by hundreds of messages, pummeled by information coming at us from all directions, demanding immediate action, relentlessly competing for our attention, surrounding us with inaudible, nerve-jarring noise. Our brains and senses overtaxed and overstimulated to the point where we no longer are fully receptive or aware. No surprise that travel is advertised as an escape. Or that once the weekend rolls around, we are either too tired to enjoy it, or enjoying it becomes compulsive like everything else…another box to check.”
But for the frequent nods of his slightly-tilted head, and soft smiles that light his face with compassionate intuition, Enrique stands immobile, while I rattle on.
“Something is calling me, I can feel it, but don’t quite yet know what it wants from me. Does this make any sense?”
“Makes perfect sense.”
“Sorry, would you like some coffee?” I offer, out of breath and sweating.
“I’d love some.” Enrique accepts without hesitating, as if what brought him here was nothing more than to listen to my bullshit. He seems unrushed, willing to set aside everything to respond with the gift of himself to my implicit plea for guidance.
I bring out the coffee, and we sit under an open, circular Palapa by the pool. Close by, the crashing waves sound like an approaching giant. The air warms up quickly, fanning the surrounding palm trees. A lime-green flock of parakeets swoops down and alights on a tall tree to begin the day’s feeding ruckus.
With eyes closed and deep delight, Enrique takes a sip of his steaming cup, and then turns to look at me. His movements are graceful, deliberate, and his eyes expressive with warm awareness.
“The tilt of the Earth’s axis is changing,” he begins in a deep voice that sounds as if coming from the distant past, a distant place, around a campfire say, somewhere on the African savannah.
“It’s changing, and with it, the Earth’s vibrations are changing too.”
Oooh dear…here we go!
My bullshit detector snaps like a steel drawbridge over the moat of my cynicism.
Pass the peyote, the opium pipe, the ganja, the coca leaves, the Ayahuasca, or whatever the fuck you’re high on. Just watch! The guy’s gonna run to his car and bring back one of those poor-quality trifolds promoting his Shamanic retreat with grainy pictures of naked white people standing in a circle in the middle of the jungle holding hands and balancing hot healing stones on their heads while a potbellied, local medicine man makes everyone kiss his Cosmic Anaconda.
But I check myself.
Listen Theo, dammit! For a change? With your heart and intuition, rather than your arrogant brain!
I take a deep breath, and lower the drawbridge to allow Enrique in.
“This shift in the Earth’s vibrations heralds a new age, an age of greater light, and more open and compassionate hearts in the world.”
“You’re an optimist.” I interject.
Enrique disarms me with an affectionate look and thin smile. “In his current state, man is but a bridge, not the end. To get to the other side, we must free ourselves – one after the other – from the shackles with which we are bound.”
“I don’t see that we are doing this.” I challenge. “On the contrary, I see man forging tougher manacles with which to restrain himself.”
“The chains that bind us most tightly are those we refuse to acknowledge. Every revolt comes with great upheaval.”
“And resistance.” I add.
“Especially resistance…” Enrique nudges me on.
“That’s precisely what I’ve been feeling! A resistance growing stronger with every step I take towards the path I feel is calling me. Like it’s warning me of great danger.”
Enrique shakes his head. “It’s only testing your resolve. The more important…the more urgent a call is to the soul, the greater the resistance.”
We fall silent. He places a hand on my knee and gets up. “I must go. Thanks for the coffee. Go to San Pancho. You might find it more suitable for what you need right now.”
We exchange emails. I walk back into the house to get ready for our second day of spearfishing. I open the blinds and look out the window. Enrique opens the gate and gets into his car. I stare, dumbfounded, as he drives away.
“Who was that?” a friend asks. “Your Mexican lover?”
“No, I reply,” remembering the faded writing on the bridge urging me to keep my dreams awake and alive. “That was Yoda.”
Chapter 4: Tempted in Paradise
An opportunity presents itself for a one-night stand. Theo is at a beachside bar in Mexico – the music pulses, a warm breeze flows, tequila shots and bared flesh abound. Theo is engulfed by an intoxicating cloud of ‘Opium’ worn by an alluring late twenties noirette sitting next to him. She’s celebrating her upcoming wedding with wild abandon in tropical paradise. Theo’s girlfriend is three-thousand miles away.
“Are you here alone? Do you have a girlfriend?” Her eyes twinkle.
Now, I am really tempted.
I run all the possible meanings and undertones of her questions in my head; all the possible scenarios. The pulsating music is not helping. Neither are the two double-scotches warming my insides and clouding my judgment, making me believe I still got it. Nor is Azra’s ‘Opium’ and exquisite bare feet, nor is all the exposed flesh inside the bar. I feel like I’m in an Abercrombie & Fitch store.
I might yet be incapable of spearing a fish, or a diving instructor, but what about Azra?
Why not? It would be her last fling in paradise before she marries, and my chance to nail a prize pussycat, confirming I still hold the power. Who can possibly find out?
CHAPTER 5: ‘THIS CAN’T BE REAL!’
Theo arrives at the Villa and believes he has finally found his Querencia. After engaging in a fulminating soliloquy with Jesus, he considers staging a coup to overthrow the Villa’s caretaker, using his charm and guile to convince the owner’s daughter to, instead, hire him, in exchange for living there, rent-free.
We sit out in the open under a milky, sweeping star swath. The atmosphere is one of tropical languor, shushed by the whisper of the small waves rolling marbles on the shore, the chirping of crickets and tree-frogs, and softly illumined by the yellow candlelight on the table. Miss Edith sits at the head, I’m to her right, the owner’s daughter next to me. As I look with curiosity at the rest, I notice that they all bear tattoos with enough colored ink etched on their skins to fill a comic-book series.
From above, the caretaker shouts into the night air: “Too late! You obviously weren’t planning on me joining you since there is no place for me at the table!” Her heavy footsteps recede. A door slams shut. The windows shake.
I turn to the owner’s daughter. She sighs heavily, shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head. “She always eats with us. I don’t see why tonight, of all nights, she needed a formal invitation. Says we didn’t invite her because she’s black. Such nonsense!”
“How long has she been here for?”
“About six years. She looks after the Villa, and helps my Dad with the rentals on Airbnb.”
Like those exploding powder flashes used in old photography, a ruse lights up in my mind: What if I drove a deeper wedge between these two women, overthrow the caretaker, and install myself in her place.
It would be the perfect coup.
CHAPTER 6: WAYFARER, THERE IS NO PATH
Theo’s scheme is thwarted, so he now heads to the town of San Pancho under the protection of Mexican drug cartels. Encountering local shamans and hustlers, Theo relives the events at the end of the Second Saros of his life that precipitated the crisis that obliterated his erotic power and manhood.
As I shake his coarse hand, I try hard not to keep staring at the broad scar – about an inch wide – that runs from his sternum, all the way to his bellybutton. His body, rugged and muscular, seems forged from the same mold as Jose Maria’s; their faces similarly angular, their jaws equally square. They both look like fierce city streetfighters transplanted onto a tropical paradise. I run my tongue over my teeth as I glimpse at the man’s own jumbled set flash at me with a smile. What’s with dentists around here? The man’s small, dark-brown eyes have the keen shine of a stealthy hunter, narrowed further, perhaps, by the tension of the pony tail in which his black, coarse long hair is tied. A few bristly hairs sprout from his upper lip and chin.
Unable to contain my curiosity, I point at his scar. “How did it happen?”
The man looks down, and rubs his fingers across its entire length. He grins, with an impish spark in his eyes, and shrugs his shoulders. “A fight over a girl.” (he squares his body in boxing position). “I was ready for a clean fistfight (throws a punch in the air), man-to-man (jabs), but the sonofabitch just stretched out his right arm sliding a sharp knife from under his sleeve, then he lunged (jumps back, arching his body, re-enacting the swift maneuver that saved his life), and sliced me!”
“Puta Madre!” I exclaim, my eyes wide. “You were lucky. Is the fucker in jail?”
The man stares past me, then looks at Jose Maria as if wanting to check with him before he answers. I wonder if I asked a question I should have probably kept to myself.
He clicks his tongue. “No,” and slowly shakes his head. “They killed him on the spot.”
CHAPTER 7 – USE THE FORCE…LET GO!
It’s the moment of reckoning for Theo. He must choose between the road well travelled, and one fraught with uncertainty, insecurity, and peril. Will he listen to his head or his heart?
What would happen if I relinquish my dream of becoming a writer once and for all? To strangle that eight-year-old boy and never look back again? Is Mary Oliver right to say that the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time?
What happens to all those unlived lives within us to which we turn our backs?
Where do they go?
CHAPTER 8 – WYLIE COYOTE
Having ran off the cliff, Theo waits for that offer he won’t be able to refuse. In the meantime, he reminisces about the recent occasions in which his reason was blinded by whirlwinds of passion and swept under currents of impetuous infatuations.
I feel like Wylie Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it?
More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.
CHAPTER 9 – MEMENTO MORI
A crucial piece in Theo’s plan refuses to fall into place, and with his eyesight worsening, and the discovery of a cancerous tumor in his father’s bladder, the search for his Querencia could be derailed.
I open my email to check if Burt has made up his mind. Nothing. I rest my forehead on my palm. By the end of December, I will have spent most of my severance, and have no alternative but to move, and if not Mexico, I’ll have to find a shared-living arrangement here in town, or farther North where rents are lower. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, stretch my head to relieve the tense pain in my neck, and exhale. I remove my reading glasses to wipe them clean. The sight in my left eye is getting worse. Not blurry, as would signal the need for a change of prescription to my contact lenses, but strangely distorted. With the fingers of my left-hand numbing and tingling during sleep, my left toes turning purple, and my left eye failing, it’s as if the entire left-side of my body is being devoured by a virulent parasite.
CHAPTER 10 – NIGHT OF GHOULS
With things at an impasse, Theo unwillingly goes to his ex-wife’s birthday party held at the house they used to share. Amid the masquerade, he relives tender and painful memories, defines his meaning of friendship, and reflects on the conflict between following one’s passions and fulfilling one’s duty.
We all have many interior lives. Many unexplored dimensions, undiscovered or denied essences. And only one life. Doesn’t it become necessary then, for us – as the only species gifted with imagination – to bring all of it into the light? If we don’t, what happens with all that unlived potential? Doesn’t it turn into regret? The things we think of on our deathbed but dare not speak. What is life for if not to live it as variedly as possible? Man, as William James said, is a being with an exuberant excess of subjective propensities. His wants, his desires, are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to experiences entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.
CHAPTER 11 – TRAIN TO NOWHERE
With the path to Sayulita blocked, and the return bridges burning, Theo stands at an empty station, heading nowhere.
“Now what? I can’t spool the line back. The swarm of snowbirds are about to descend on Mexico making any other rental unaffordable until March or April. Dad’s not dying, so what would be the point of going to his side? This is not how a hero’s journey is supposed to play out: the hero receives the calling, answers it, and when he is ready to cross the first threshold, the call goes quiet and the threshold disappears? Was it only a prank call? Or perhaps, I have not given clarity to my intentions, haven’t filled my sails with the wind of unwavering determination. Where the f#ck is the mentor, the Wise Man, the one who is supposed to show up at his juncture to guide me…where is Obi Wan?”
CHAPTER 12 – BIVOUAC
Theo considers giving up on his dream, dealing a final deathblow to the boy in the tree.
The image of a moss-covered mausoleum rises out of the muddled swamp clogging my mind. Resting on a metal bier inside the candle-lit vault is an open coffin cradling the young version of myself in its cushioned interior. His eyes are closed, his fair hair combed, his skin translucent. He wears a black, two-piece suit, white shirt, red clip-on bow tie, and lustrous patent-leather shoes. Crossed over his chest, his arms hold an empty notebook and a fountain pen.
His death would be my death.
CHAPTER 13 – OLD MARINER’S CURIO SHOP
Away from the ruins of his past, Theo arrives in a snow blizzard to the remains of his father’s present and voyages across the museum of his Dad’s life guided by a symbolic map to all the fantastical corridors of his mind.
Crossing the threshold into my father’s den is like walking into an old mariner’s curio shop located in an exotic port of call.
Odors of well-worn leather, fragrant pipe tobacco, and stale cigarette smoke. Through the skylight, the soft effusion of winter’s early light mingles with the yellow glow of the lit table and floor lamps highlighting the deep burgundy sheen of two leather armchairs, the chestnut wood of the fixed and rotating display cabinets, and the polished umber of a carved bench crested with an effigy of a bearded demon on its curved backrest – all lending the large room a spectral aura that makes you feel as if standing on ritual space, inside the painted caves of Lascaux for instance, or the ceremonial precinct of a jungle Shaman.
CHAPTER 14 – A TRUE DEADBEAT AND SCOUNDREL!
Only two weeks into his journey, Theo’s ship is buffeted by gales of guilt and recriminations. Unable to write, and fearing his ship will be forever stuck at harbor, he struggles to get back in touch with his inner Wild Man and to make sense of his father’s own journey through life.
I feel as if half-blind, on a defendant’s chair, listening to a prosecutor drone a seemingly-endless list of my crimes, stinging me like a tireless wasp with each charge: abandonment, dereliction of paternal responsibilities, sloth, vagrancy, recklessness, fancifulness, hypocrisy…
A true deadbeat and scoundrel, your Honor!
Despite my comforting logic in the face of such fiery condemnation, despite the sound arguments as my own defense counsel, I cannot fully rid myself of the dull sting left behind by the barbs being hurled at me. It’s as if a drop of truth swirls in every ounce of poison into which they are dipped.
CHAPTER 15 – VIA CRUCIS
Rather than considering it as a simple search for a space in which he can regain his strength, Theo begins to see his journey as a spiritual quest. But before he can clearly define what that means, things back home reach such a frenzied pitch that Theo prepares to give up his quest and return.
Later that afternoon, like an itinerant band of mendicants, I drive my father and stepmom in their clattering Subaru from one doctor’s clinic to another, hoping to score free medicine. Although I say nothing, I can sense my father’s feelings of indignity, inadequacy, and helplessness; detect the guilt in his eyes looking out the car window as we wait for her to come out, hopefully victorious, with a white paper bag containing the little pumps of spray which will make him stop gasping like a fish out of water, at least for a while.
Once a man who could drop forty-thousand in cash onto a glass counter of a jewelry shop in Miami and walk out with four gold watches; or twenty-thousand at the Plaza Hotel for a Chinese sword, just because. A man who could afford to lose the family’s Bertram yacht in a drunken double-or-nothing dice-throw with Tommy Anderson at the ‘Jolly Roger’; who once owned a colonial palace built by a Spanish Conquistador; who spared no expense to care for his wife’s parents as they simultaneously battled with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; a self-made man of great means and boundless generosity, now holding on to the car’s roof handle looking out to a bleak winter day, unable to afford the mist he needs to keep breathing.
CHAPTER 16 – A GOOD FATHER
As Theo begins to consider his options to return and save his daughter from the mess he created, his eldest joins the chorus of condemnation cracking the only pillar left supporting his sense of self-worth: his conviction of having been – and still being – a caring, devoted father. The shock compels Theo to reflect once more on what it means to be a “good” father.
Paternal care in mammals is rare.
There are no good fathers in Greek mythology and very few in the Old Testament.
Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian Gods, was a pissed-off womanizer. Cronus devoured his children. Tantalus barbecued his son Pelops and served the meat to the gods. Pelop’s son Atreus had the children of his brother Thyestes killed, cooked, and served to their unknowing father.
The Christian Overlord was insecure and jealous, vindictive, bloodthirsty, intolerant, unreasonable, who sacrificed his son and had a poor sense of humor. Don’t take my word for it…read the Book of Job.
The French painter Paul Gauguin left his wife and five children to paint, only to die from syphilis at age 54 on the remote Pacific island of Hiva Oa.
George Dibbern left his wife and three young daughters to become a bridge of good fellowship between men.
I am now part of that pantheon because I refused to pay for an oil change.
CHAPTER 17 – CARRYING OUR BURDEN
Theo rushes his father to the hospital expecting him to die. In such proximity to the ravages of time and death’s impassive and inevitable blow, he begins to crystallize his thoughts on suffering and purpose, and to realize that his journey might mean more than simply a quest for a space to rest and recover his strength.
“I am starting to realize suffering is like a giant cake from which we each must take a slice. Refusing it doesn’t make our slice goes away, it just means some poor schmuck will have to carry and eat a double portion.”
“I wish I could be here to see how you’d handle your own demise.”
“Maybe that’s why I am here: to learn how to face death. All I know is that death is a terminal illness we all get at birth regardless of genetics. Seneca said that he who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man. But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at conception will live on those terms, and then nothing again will take him by surprise.”
“So, you’re not afraid to die?”
“I’m hoping to reach the stage one of my favorite writers arrived at…the Greek, Kazantzakis, whose tombstone is etched with one of his most memorable lines: I hope for nothing, I fear nothing. I am free! The thought of death is unsettling to be sure, but even more so is the thought of death in life. That’s the reason I often carry a tiny plastic skull with me. It reminds me the clock is ticking, making me want to live with the urgency of the terminally-ill.”
CHAPTER 18 – THE PROBLEM WITH EPIPHANIES AND OMENS
Theo faces the stark realities of reaching for stars or putting food on the table, but with little choice but work as a janitor at a nearby church, he appears closer to ramming through his fears, doubts, and irresolution.
Here’s the problem with epiphanies. Moments when you suddenly feel you understand or become conscious of something that is very important to you. They come without instructions and no warning labels.
They are as irksomely sketchy as omens, like the faded phrase on the parapet wall of the bridge in Sayulita: Hope your Dreams Don’t Fall Asleep, or the words of Martin Luther King Jr. painted on the white stucco wall at the artists’ gallery in Bucerias: Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.
What to do after you take that first step and find yourself free-falling into the abyss the omens don’t say.
Epiphanies are also sly. The magic potion appears before your eyes in a rousing and blinding dazzle, aglitter with the promise of a new life, and most often strike you during moments of great despair and confusion (Nelinha for example). It’s like being handed a vial of antivenom right after being bit by a deadly snake, already feeling your insides going numb and your surroundings fading to darkness. So you drink the elixir in one desperate gulp believing the act of drinking alone will make all your problems go away.
What the vial doesn’t warn you is that you’re only trading old challenges for new ones, better suited to your nature and yearnings surely, but for which you are woefully unskilled and unprepared.
The instant you quaff the juice you feel an electrifying surge of enthusiasm, in possession of extraordinary powers. There’s good reason why the word enthusiasm originally referred to a person possessed by a god. Think Jesus, moonwalking over the Sea of Galilee, or recall what I told you about having felt as if floating across the trail the day I was struck by that first epiphany at Cascade Falls.
Like any drug, the effect doesn’t last long, usually dissipating when the harsh light of reality (or one’s wife, in my case) knocks some sense into you.
But before that happens, like a prostitute vowing to never return to her previous line of work, you foolishly announce your intentions to the world: “I am going on an adventure! I am going to become a writer and be free!”
That’s when the problems start.
CHAPTER 19 – DAY OF RECKONING
The day has come for Theo to either sink, or swim.
Having chosen the path of a writer, I must stop whining about why I can’t or won’t write. I simply must do it! Our struggles define us, not our desires. No one is interested in what I am not doing – neither you, my daughters, my girlfriend, nor I. Above all, the boy up on the tree, who I vowed to rescue, can’t wait any longer. I must awaken The Warrior before it’s too late.
FINAL CHAPTER – FOREVER THE FLYING FISH!
Soaring from his fiery ordeal, Theo rescues the boy in the tree, vows to forever remain a flying fish and write the saga of his love and existential tumult.
I now see how the wrong train has led me to the right destination and know what I must do with my one, wild and precious life. I will procrastinate no more, fear nothing, hope for nothing, and write the story of my love and existential tumult. I will heed Henry Miller’s bugle call to deliver myself naked and vulnerable, blow my top and spread my guts on the page, giving the world, in my own language, the saga of my joys and tribulations.
No longer will I tiptoe my way through life but stomp! Not whisper, but bellow.
As the frozen sea inside me was cracked by the book I read when recently divorced, I too wish my words to be an ax that breaks the ice blocking us from a life more abundant. I will remain a vagabond, a metaphysical gypsy, forever the flying fish, but will return again and again to the sea of distractions and fantasies that keep most of us circling in endless cycles of ennui. Wake up! I’ll scream, like Christ could’ve just said.
Carefree, coarse but gentle, expansive, generous, nurturing, voracious, sensual, uninhibited, incandescent and wild, I will travel the Open Road carrying thunderbolts in my hands and a skull in my pocket.