Travel and Healing–Gold Winner: My Mexican Housewife

By Stacey Tuel

“Traveling is one of the hopeful symptoms of life.” – Agnes Repplier

What is it about traveling that gives us hope for our own lives? Can traveling reveal to us secrets unknown about ourselves? Is it possible to travel across the world, into an unfamiliar land, surround ourselves with unfamiliar faces and words, and still find some kind of mirror our own lives? If we make the leap, take the step, and journey into worlds unknown, will we find nothing is the same – or do we find our same stories? Is it possible that the way we feel, the ways in which we suffer and the ways in which we experience happiness, are the same the world over?

***

My first morning in her house, the Senora came shuffling around the courtyard door to my bedroom, her little slippered footsteps rousing me from my jet-lag laden sleep. I turned my head to the noise at the window. My eyes opened to her maroon-tinted head struggling to reach the top window slat, the only one I had left open. Her voice hissed a Spanish greeting over the hum of the ceiling fan. “Si, si, ” I answered groggily, as I so often did those first few weeks, never knowing what had been asked or said, but answering the same every time nonetheless. As I rolled out of my squeaky twin bed, I saw that her maroon head had not moved, but that she was still straining, on tiptoes no doubt, to see into my room. I pulled the thin sheet around my naked frame and caught her eyes focused on me, and I smiled, “Si, I’m up, uh…bueno,” hoping that the head would soon disappear. “Ah, muy cansada,” she said with a grin. I had no idea what she meant, but still I felt judged. I reached across to my suitcase for a sarong to cover my now awkward nakedness. “Si,” I answered again, realizing that she had no intention of leaving her post yet. She muttered something else, too quickly, but I understood desayuno and again nodded, “Si, si.” I stood up, tying the sarong around my body, and followed her lead as she opened my bedroom door and led me through the courtyard into her house.

Her kitchen was already filled with the smells of the day’s food: the chicken for lunch was boiling in a big pot of onions and peppers, tortillas were crackling in a cast iron skillet, and papaya peels lay in a heap next to the stove. She sat me at a little wooden table covered with a bright floral plastic tablecloth and poured me a glass full of freshly squeezed orange juice. As I drank my first delicious gulp, she placed a steaming plateful of food in front of me – black beans, rice, and fried plantains. Then she sat down right across from me, her eager eyes waiting for my next move. I looked down at the plate of food and glanced at the little line of black ants scurrying across the placemat. The Senora must have followed my eyes, and she quickly reached across the table and with her stout brown fingers, squashed each little ant and brushed them onto the tile floor. Then she pushed my plate of food closer to me, nodding and smiling.

I took my first bite of beans and rice, warm and soothing, and smiled back at her. Then I scooped up a plantain, still dripping with grease, and ate it in one bite. The starchy sweetness melted into my mouth and I closed my eyes for a second to savor it. “Delicioso,” I said, nodding my approval. She leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms with obvious satisfaction, and widened her smile. She raised her arm and pointed at her chest, and with a grin said, “Me,” poking her at her chest, “good cook.” Not sure if she was making a statement or asking a question, I nodded enthusiastically, “Bueno. Mucho bueno.” Her chocolate eyes crinkled up as her face broke into a wide smile. And then she began to laugh, a sweet rolling chuckle, and reached across to take my hand, laughing harder as she held and patted my hand. Unsure of what to do and what she found so funny, I laughed with her. I laughed nervously, glad that it appeared we were getting along. I thought of the extreme transformation my life had just made. Here I was, wrapped in a sarong, already sweating in the humid air, holding hands with my new host mother, swatting mosquitoes with my free hand and thinking, what will this Yucatecan life be like? What would living here with the Senora be like? It seemed like the two of us couldn’t be more different, and yet here we were, holding hands in her kitchen, living under the same tiled roof. Two women, two worlds. How would we get along?

By the second week of my stay I had learned the Senora’s schedule, and I now was up and dressed before the maroon head appeared to call me for desayuno. Our mornings didn’t change. We sat together at the little table, she watched as I ate, and then watched as I waited in the street to catch the bus. As I learned more in my intensive Spanish classes, I was able to come home in the afternoon and chat with the Senora. I could tell her about the day at school or what activities I would do in the afternoon. The first time I tried to explain to her that I wanted to go for a jog into the town, she looked at me as though I were loca. I quickly fumbled through my dictionary, thinking I had misplaced the verb correr with some utterly absurd phrase. But I pointed to the verb in the dictionary, and still the Senora looked aghast. “Por que?’ she asked incredulously. Sure, it was hot and muggy outside, and the town was about 3 miles away, but I that wasn’t much compared to the training I logged on the treadmill back home. I tried to explain that I liked to run, liked exercise, but the Senora didn’t seem to understand. But how could I explain my need for exercise to a woman who only rarely left her house? She worked most of the morning, cooking, washing, cleaning, but by each afternoon she was reclined in her hammock, her little rabbit-eared television humming with the chatter of Mexican soap operas. She stayed in that hammock for the rest of the afternoon and evening, coming out only to bring a plate a food or glass of juice upstairs to her ailing husband.

I never ventured upstairs to the mysterious second floor, where she disappeared to at night, from where I could here the muffled sounds of his coughing. He had come downstairs only once, on the night of my arrival, to greet me with a kiss on the cheek. I could scarcely believe that the skeleton of a man before me was married to the Senora, who looked to have been 30 years his junior. His skin was yellowed and dotted with brown moles, his grey hair not more than a few persistent strands, and the skin from his neck sagged over the neckline of his t-shirt. After I met him, I looked back at the Senora, who at age fifty-five was still in good physical shape with beautiful olive skin and a shining head of dark hair (the maroon tint was added, no doubt). It was hard to fathom that these two were ever a good match.

After about a month in the Spanish school, I came home one day to have lunch and found the Senora reading a newspaper at the table. She looked excited as she pointed to a small article with a photograph of a mariachi band. The men in the photo, all older, looked distinguished in their wide hats and sequined suits. She launched into rapid chatter, talking about the band and the music, telling me they were her favorite and very good. Then she pointed to the date and time, and I understood that the band was playing the next night in the town square. By her excited gestures, I knew that this was no ordinary event.

I tried to ask her about the band, where they were from and how she knew of them, and then tried desperately to follow along as she told an animated story. I couldn’t be sure as to all the details, but as she talked I imagined that she was describing her younger days, when the band was at the height of their popularity. She would sing all their songs and dance all the dances. The girls would dress in traditional dresses, paint their faces and dance the folklorico dances. She said she couldn’t sing or dance anymore, but that when she was younger she couldn’t get her fill of their music. Then her face dimmed a bit, and she said in a lowered voice, that she no longer had music, that it was only a part of her past. I started to ask her, “Por que?” but before I could finish my thought, she nodded silently nodded to the upstairs. I nodded back and didn’t add another word.

As she cleared up the plate from my almuerzo, she encouraged me to go into town the next night for the concert. She mentioned that I might find some other student from the language school to go with me, so that I wouldn’t have to go alone (it seemed that many of my solo excursions concerned her). I saw my perfect opportunity and asked her if maybe she would like to accompany me. She laughed a little and answered, “No, no,” while shaking her head, and dismissed the idea by describing herself as floja, which I looked up in the dictionary and found to mean “lazy.” Her excuse was simply that she was too lazy to leave the house. And with that, she took off back to her room, the small side room off the kitchen, and closed the door. Like every afternoon, I heard the click of the television, the actors’ voices crackling through, then the soft creak of the swaying hammock. I went back to my room too, closed the door and flipped on the ceiling fan, the sound only somewhat drowning out the dramatic cries of the soap opera. I lay down on the twin bed and took out my laptop computer, opened up my digital journal, and recorded the day’s events, as I did every afternoon. I thought about heading into town on the bus to catch a movie at the cinema, or maybe going to the Mayan History museum. But I couldn’t muster the energy. So I lay on the bed, listening to the sounds of TV, and instead began to write.

My Mexican housewife

in a faded old house dress,

stooped over a tiled and cracking sink

squashing ants one by one with her long, Catholic fingers.

And prays for all her children

this includes me now

the sacred matrimony –

Dios, the Virgin, redemption

and find me a man

I hear her call out in the night

against the quaking of leaves on my window slats

and the shivering hum of the ceiling fan

as fluorescent light bounces off my bug-crawling skin.

Her eyes watch me from her courtyard perch,

like the night owl or

the gecko climbing the paint-peeling corner.

So watchful and curious of this stranger

not so unlike

the faces of women on her daytime soaps I hear through the closed bedroom door

as she swings in her hammock and doesn’t realize

there’s a suicidal woman in your casa, Senora.

I breathed in the sweet, humid air as I finished writing. I turned off the computer and put it back into my suitcase. I lay back down onto the awkward mattress and scratched at my ankles covered in mosquito bites. The bites seemed to multiply. I reached over for the bug spray and soaked my legs in Deet. I thought of reading a book or going for walk, but instead remained perfectly still staring at the whirling ceiling fan. I tuned my ears to the sounds of the house – the muffled voices of the actors, the occasional cough from upstairs, the melancholic cry of the cat outside the kitchen door. I listened, concentrating to hear each sound over the dismal drone of the ceiling fan. Within minutes I fell asleep, drifting into a dream where I found a long, green river…where I rode on the back of a slippery iguana past my dead grandmother’s house, slowly drifting into patches of smoke and eerie voices, as I asked the iguana in Spanish, Donde vamos? Where are we going? Suddenly I was walking up to my grandmother’s house. I floated in through the front door and into the living room, where my grandmother was waiting for me. She was sitting atop boxes and heaps of her things, pulling everything apart as if searching for something. She looked tiny, lost, amongst all her things. I felt her silk blouses, photos of her sons, my grandpa’s Air Force Uniform. I slid my arms around her little body, hugging her as she cried. Her body was tiny and frail, my arms seeming to push right through her flesh. She cried. I wiped tears off her porcelain cheeks, and she asked me, “Where are we, mi hija? Donde estamos?”

I cried too. Tears fell in my mouth, filled my throat, so that when I opened my mouth to tell her, only tears came. Like vomit, my tears poured into puddles that grew on the grass under our feet.

The grass suddenly melted into waves of green water and I was pulled under the water, kicking and propelling myself out of her house, out of the dream. I woke, shivering, with the thin sheet covering only half of my body. My poor grandmother, I thought. Bearing the history of my family. Women who love too much, and lose themselves in love, and their hearts so easily broken, purging out into trails and puddles of tears. I pulled the thin sheet closer around my body and closed my ears to the night sounds.

The next morning over desayuno, I mustered the courage and the Spanish words to ask the Senora about concert at the town square. I smiled and added that I thought she should come, to which she again shook her head and laughed it off. Again she told me that I should find another student to go along with me, and I tried to explain that I didn’t really know the other students very well Since I didn’t partake in their debaucherous nights of drinking in Cancun, I hadn’t particularly bonded with any of them. Of course, my Spanish couldn’t suffice and my explanation seemed to confuse her more than anything. But as she walked me out to the door of the courtyard to say goodbye that morning, she asked, shyly, in broken English, “You want that I come? Tonight?” I nodded enthusiastically, “Si, si!” and she grinned back at me. “Tal vez,” she answered, which I knew was a maybe.

When I returned from school in the afternoon, my chicken mole lunch was ready and waiting. I ate every last bite of the sweet, warm sauce, sopping it up with tortillas like the Senora had showed me. As I pushed back from the table and patted my stomach, adding “llena” as the Senora had taught me, I thought to bring up the concert again. I told the Senora that I had to go into town to do some work at the internet cafe, but that I would return around 5’oclock and that perhaps later we could go to the concert. She nodded, but didn’t offer a real answer. I took off hoping that she would join me, knowing that it might be the only time she would get out for a concert in town.

I came back to the house that evening, dripping with sweat from the humid walk home. The door to the Senora’s room was closed, the TV humming, and I figured that she was settled for the night. I went through the courtyard to my room and then into the dark bathroom. I showered in the cold water dripping from the rusted shower head, wrapped myself in a towel, and went back to my bedroom to get dressed. As I changed into my clothes for the evening, I heard a quiet knock on the bedroom door. As I opened it, there stood the Senora, no longer in her faded house dress, but dressed in a skirt and blouse. Her maroon hair looked even brighter, probably just re-dyed, and I even thought I detected a shimmer of eyeshadow across her eyelids. “Eres hermosa,” I said with a smile that couldn’t contain my excitement. She answered in a low, hushed voice, “Gracias,” then told me we should leave for the bus in twenty minutes. As she left, I closed the door, my eyes welling up. I don’t know if I was more excited to spend the night with her, or because she appeared to have fancied herself up. I finished getting myself ready, sure to put on makeup myself, so that she would know what an event this was for me too.

We left the house twenty minutes later, both clutching purses as we walked down the dirt road to the main street. We had pesos ready in our hands as we climbed onto the rickety bus that stopped in the middle of the road for us, and we sat together, quietly as the other passengers watched the strange duo. We got off at the Cathedral in the town square and walked around the plaza before we headed to the concert. The Senora showed me the best stores in the central plaza, where to buy souvenirs for the best prices, and where the best heladeria was. I went into the little ice cream shop and bought us two enormous cones, giggling as we licked at the melting fruit. When we got to the park where the concert was, the Senora found us two seats near the stage. She sat in her folding chair with perfect posture, looking as regal as a queen. She glanced around the crowd, smiled at familiar faces, and then her own face lit up as the mariachis took the stage.

As soon as the pulsing music started, I watched her start singing along to the band. She knew every lyric to every song and sang it just loud enough for me to hear. She carried a tune well, her voice crackling with years, but still poignant and melodic. When the band played La Haranga the chair could barely contain her excitement, and she swayed to the beat with her arms and torso. I wanted to stand up, to take her hand and dance with her. I wanted us to dance uninhibited, to shake our hips and sway to the crooning horns, but I couldn’t muster the courage to grab her hand. Maybe she would have laughed, or been too embarrassed, or maybe she would have liked it. I’ll never know.

Instead, I sat and watched her that night. From the corners of my eyes I watched her face light up with every new song, felt her squeeze my hand and whisper the names of the songs, before she launched into her singing. I watched her knees bounce up and down in perfect time to the beat, and saw her youth revealed- as if stories of her Mexican youth were emanating from the music.

We took the bus home together that night, she still humming songs and trying to teach me lyrics. As we walked up the dirt road to her house, she stopped in front of the courtyard and kissed my cheek. Divertisima, mi hija, she said smiling. She hugged me, and then headed up the stairs to the second floor, where her husband lay snoring noisily. I tiptoed into my room and shut the door behind me. Leaning with my back to door, I took a deep breath and waited to hear their bedroom door shut. But instead, I heard her footsteps bravely come back down the stairs. I heard her feet shuffle to her little side room, and then the door squeaked closed. I envisioned her bare-footsteps on the cold tile as she crossed the room and then heard the same soft creak of her hammock as she settled into her place.


Leave a Reply

Travelers' Tales