Thursday, September 24, 2009
Ah, romantic love among the ruins
Ah romantic love. Or, as our metrosexual hosts on HUMAN EDGE on TV Ontario might announce before a chapter like this, with some condescendence: "Heterosexual Love"-- the bored acquiescence to a story like this, as if his ancestors were already homosexual while ours were still in the trees. Oh we are so behind!
Anyway, another chapter about falling in love among the Spanish ruins.
She was lying face downwards on her terrycloth towel, a breeze toying with her fine blonde hair. I reached out to stroke that hair, so spanking clean, and the woman turned to face me with her full pale blue eyes, wide apart and a little crazy, the high California cheekbones and a mouth as wide and pretty as an idyll's.
We were lying in the grass before a Mexican spa, one of a dozen in the central plateau, the hot springs of Los Antes, lush and tropical in a benign late February sun. Before us steamed a pool, hot as a bathtub, fat old tourists squatting therein like latter day versions of souls being cleansed in Dante's purgatory.
What a far cry this was from frosty Canada, from the sense of hopelessness and death that comes every February, when nothing seems to break the gloom, the threatening darkness, the pallor of one's skin. Canadians are more like Finns or Norwegians, not at all in temperament like the "slow Americans" that someone had labeled them.
Like the Finn, the Canadian drinks to excess in the course of a long and oppressive winter; he entertains gloomy and destructive thoughts on the worst of the snowy or slushy days, building up slow, smoldering resentment against one's wife, one's children, one's dog.
I hope I didn't come to Mexico just to escape winters, I was thinking, my plans, my equations, my diagrams now not meaning very much at all. I was conscious again that I was in possession of a body, mine and that in the end, back there, no gain, no gain at all was worth the loss of one's health.
But how little it had taken to turn it all around. The sun. O that sun! No wonder the Aztecs had worshipped it.
For two thousand years and more, the Indians in this north central region of Mexico had made their trips to the hot springs of the Ancients. Not Aztecs these, but Toltecs, older and fiercer, and Chichimecs and Tarascans. And long before them the Prototoltecs who may not have been Indians at all. For this was an archeological zone known as Mesoamerican, where for years dozens of cultures large and small clashed against each other to leave artifacts that would later stun the scientists, stun them because many of the vases, clay pipes and jars were of unmistakably Chinese origin, and that gave the theorists plenty to think about. Cloissone in the desert, among clumps of chaparral and mesquite.
Still, all the cultures worshipped the sun and they believed in cleanliness to the point of fanaticism, making daily trips, it is said, to the many hot spring sites, rubbing themselves with gourd soap to maintain their health or to heal themselves whenever and infrequent illness passed through the region. For the waters of the ancients were magic. Slightly radioactive, they could cure the gout and aching joints and hernias and muscle pains. They could even ease the gloomy depression which seemed to affect every lord and tribesman in the late February days, those days so warm at noon only to turn cool by evening, turning to nights of near-frost. The sun was in danger of being lost by the time Venus shone bright and threatening in the western heavens. Human sacrifice would have to be performed, or else this upstart furnace may yet flare up and usurp the sun, the moon, the earth.
The sacrifices would bring back the sun, would diminish Venus, and life would continue among the Toltecs, the Tarascans, the Chichimecs, who would, depending on the time and period of contact, raid each other for suitable sacrifice victims. There was sacrifice, of course and there was stupidity Better a maid or stripling from another tribe.
With the Toltecs long gone, it took the Spanish Conquistadores exactly one generation to render the remaining Tarascans and Chichimecs syphilitic and smallpox ridden, diseases that the magic waters of the ancients could not cure. Little by little the hot springs of the ancients, the same ones that my newfound California girl and I were so fond of, were abandoned, save as a water source. Eventually, the hot springs of Lost Antes became a bathing spot for the Spaniards, the Indians having to content themselves with the smaller, hotter natural springs and pools that abounded in the area.
But a generation later, the waters again attracted the old, the lame and the sick who gathered around the stonewalled pools and elaborately built bathhouses of the ancients. For among the Spaniards, the waters of the Ancients were anything from a cure for impotence, to a retardation of old age. The waters of the Ancients, some said, could well have made up the fountain of youth so long sought by Ponce de Leon and other dreamers.
With the weakening of Spain's control over Mexico, the Indians reclaimed the waters as their own, and over the years, the healing waters of the Old Ones regained their renown as a cure for virtually any ailment, some going so far as to say that a combination of prolonged exposure to the sun and frequent soaking in the night-shining water could even cure venereal disease.
I recalled talking to a doctor back in Canada who said that the sun, over a long term had the curing power of the best antibiotic. And I began to believe it these first few weeks in Mexico when I felt the pain in my groin subside. The doctor had, in his evasive way, not really admitted what the case with me was, and I had not dared to ask outright. Enough that the problem was "very nasty" and the antibiotics were not getting it.
Now with the sun, with the healing waters, whether through wishful thinking or not, I felt myself healing. I was feeling the restless energy of an organism that had had enough of confinement, that wanted to get out of the sickbed and walk in the sun. Over the weeks, I began to feel as if I were shedding whole blocks of years and it was Valerie, as well as the waters, that made me feel so.
"I love you, I am saying to the bikini-clad long-legged slightly knock-kneed but pert form lying beside me, and I play with her hair. I am, I know, perhaps the thirtieth. Times change. This isn't the fifties, where an entire generation seemed to have spent its life in a penal colony. Still, something of my Cabbagetown gutter language slips through the onion letters of my personality. She's lovely, but if she had as many pricks sticking out of her as she's had sticking into her, she'd be a goddamn porcupine. But that's adolescent talk that even the slum kids don't use today. Everybody's gone cosmic.
A flashback come. From guilt. Guilt over leaving Loren. My god, how will I ever come to terms with this?
Sex was really nothing in l977. You can have sex, lots of sex in this sexy decade. But in the case of Valerie, I realized that it wasn't the sex at all. She was a sister, like a twisted sister of my own, twisted but now socialized, perhaps overly socialized. I had never been nuts, but I was listening very carefully to her take on me, getting me in touch with who I was, what I felt, where I had been and where I was going. I just loved to hear her talk and seemed to be finding out about myself and her. I was growing to love Valerie only in the space of a very few weeks.
I looked over the modern pool at Lost Antes, through the flattened, crabbed greenery of thorn and pepper trees, their roots in the warm earth, branches spreading out and threatening to drop to the ground completely, the gardeners propping up the limbs with thick deadwood tree crotches, giving the trees a surreal look, like those enormous distended brains in the Dali paintings, these too supported by their inverse slingshot crotches.
Above the pool, the grass and the distended trees, a rich sky of a very dark blue, the blue of the thin Mexican sky. Most of Mexico was about seven thousand feet in altitude. No wonder so many of the Gringos seemed to be half-intoxicated all the time. The rarified air, the instant aristocratic status afforded to any North American. This was the place to be, to finally face the thing that had bothered you for so long back there, up north.
It was all so easy. All one had to do was to leave the scene of ones misery. "Abandon you creeping meatball." That's what Jerry Rubin had been saying and it had at the time made so little sense to me, there in the late sixties, in the university, with my blackboards and my equations, seeing under my very nose a generation that was truly like no other one ever on the face of the earth. I had at first laughed. A passive generation of Christs led by a so-called youth activist hardly younger than myself. Yes, the creeping meatball. The job, the departmental politics, the killer instincts of those around me, the illness, the cancer that thrives so well back up there, cells crying out against the rigidity of their form in a culture built on speed and abstract work.
All one had to do was leave. Or was that all there was to it?
I stroked the woman's hair again, moving my hand to her deeply tanned back, hot now in the sun. This morning I had made love to her twice and she had risen from the bed like a thing young and free and I told her to wait, not to leave, and I'd love her once again.
Valerie, from Santa Barbara, drying out from her drugs, her past life, her divorce. As in my own case, it seemed to take the Mexican sun no time at all to restore her to a brown, healthy vitality, to take her mind off herself and to restore it to the world. My world.
Had I been a younger man, I would have been content to merely gape at Valerie in mute reverence. She was lovelier than any dream. And she was attracted to me, who was balding and carrying a spare tire, me who was supposed to be the mad scientist gone over the hill, at least in my wife's estimation, and in the estimation of my doctor, far worse.
I'd met her shortly after arriving in Mexico. She was everything and she was nothing. Tall, stunning a traffic stopper, she was indeed beautiful, yet the simplest in psychology and makeup. She tended to talk like a hairdresser or a commentator on those eye-on-entertainment television shows, something of a bimbo, but what a bimbo! She had been an actress and a good one. I could tell. She had a memory. Could read two pages, close the book and relate it all to you. Then tell you that words were mere traps for fools and emotions was where she lived. You could see what happened to her. Somewhere, because of her divorces, she had lost the snap between logic and emotion and some therapist had spotted it. Yet she was still the empath the gorgeous Lorelei. And I was so lonely that I would do anything, anywhere just so as not to be alone. And it was my luck to end up with a Candice Bergen.
How does it come to a man that he adopts a strange bed in a move that seems congruent with some failure in his life, the failure of a scientific project, a creative project or a whole life wrong from the start?
I had decided on a town called Manuel Hidalgo in Mexico, a lovely hill community recommended to me again and again by some of my fellow professors who had gone there on sabbaticals to work on private projects or just to rest up and re-evaluate their lives and careers.
I had arrived at the town square, triumphant and exhilarated at first, exhilarated by the palms, aches, porticos, blue hills and the sense of having nothing to do for the rest of one's life. Lordships are still so easy to buy in this upside-down century.
Yet, by about the fourth day, I felt very self-conscious and very alone, there among the arches and the palms. Try to come in cold into a culture of strange customs, strange 17th Century churches, strange casual people, and you will feel yourself diminished, a nobody.
I had been somebody back home, the professor, the hundred-dollar-a-day intellectual. But here in the terraced restaurants, in the flowered Jardine, the flowered town square, with its boat-tailed grackles and rubber trees, I was nobody, still one more middle-aged fuckup who had had the sense to avoid ultimate embarrassment and failure by leaving my immediate surroundings. Kevin Logan talking to all the aging expatriate hippies, some hardly younger than himself, Kevin Logan talking to anybody and everybody, spreading himself thin (this was not the familiar university, professor), nervous, vulnerable, alienating himself and finally reduced to drinking in the cheapest and easiest spots to talk with the people, for you needed no social skills down in the pulque bars and dives. The tequila and the smoke usually carries you to a lower order of existence than you had anticipated, the scary Lost Weekend feeling, and after a while, as long as you were drunk, you really didn't care.
I sat with old men, American and Mexican, finding them congenial. The younger ones were dangerous, many of them, frontier-fashion, carrying guns. The old Americans of Manuel Hidalgo were an unusually approachable breed, younger in spirit than their counterparts back home in the old age lockups and the VA hospitals. The old men of Manueal Hedalgo had, many of them, come to Mexico to escape the bedpans and the smell of urine and death. These were men who were still really young enough to even undertake new projects, who resented the cult of youth back home, the cult that would not recognize healthy seventy-year-olds who could be as puzzled over existence as men of thirty-two, as sensitive as adolescents and as scared of the future as the youngest intellectual in the increasingly tight patriarchy that is Latin America.
In my loneliness and my drunkenness, I poured out my troubles to the old men, taking my turn, after they had poured out their troubles to me. Men, young and old, are indeed strangers on this planet. It is the business culture of work and competition that keeps men away from the real issues. In Mexico, with these elements absent for the visitor, people tend to talk about ultimate concerns: "Who, what, where am I and what is the meaning of my life?" People frequently huddle together when they ask such questions of themselves and others. So I huddled with the old men. And the old men were offering their observations.
"You think that you have left your wife for just a little while," one of the old men was saying. "That's what you think. You have left her for good. You are on a rollercoaster, boy, and it's going to take you some distance by the time you decide to get off.
"No, you're never going back. Never."
There were a number of good hotels in Manuel Hidalgo. I had registered at the San Fernando, paying a Gringo verdura's price for lodgings and food. I'd learned of this expression later as I got to know more and more Americans. The passing of the dope culture had put the label of verdura on North Americans. Not norteamericano, not Gringo, but verdura--vegetable--and it somehow made sense. Only North Americans can initiate the lifestyle of the hippie, the communal farmer, the encounter grouper. Yet, I was thinking to myself, am I any better, taking two thousand dollars of the money I'd unconsciously saved for just such a venture, dropping everything and probably very much contemplating the style of the dandy, of the hippie, before the clamps of society and old age itself came down. Clichés are true. You only have one life.
Yet who knows what Loren would do once it was plain that I had found not old men, but a woman and that I may be gone for good?
I had met Valerie while I was having dinner with my usual bottle of brandy, there among the arches, porticos and cathedral ceilings of the hotel, a splendorous dining hall with its banana palms, its bougainvillea reaching up to the thick skylights, a salon really that amounted to being an eighteenth- century greenhouse, a scene straight out of a Kubrick movie like Barry Lyndon, a Fieldingesque setting crying out for heavily-rouged aristocratic whist players or gamblers; yet it was different in Mexico. It was more Mariachis and domino games and the heavy colonial hardwood tables, kerosene-finish Mesquite chairs in their plush red upholstery.
The brandy was having its effect. Everything was turning rosy in the afternoon. The scientific paper? The definitive unified theory between quantum physics and the way people behave? That seemed so far away now. The mind works best while gathered into itself for contemplation. Plato, old buddy, I'm entirely with you. Beauty. truth, yeah, maybe even love. I kept pouring the brandy.
She had made the first advance, ambling over to me in that charming pigeon-toed walk of hers that I would later grow to love, asking me for help in translating an entree on her menu. "My Spanish isn't so hot."
I know some French and Latin and the Spanish was beginning to make sense to me.
I explained the menu to her and then, in my loneliness, on a whim uncharacteristic of stodgy Canadians, I asked her, so very cool and Californian, whether she would join me.
To my surprise, and without much ado, she did join me. Just like that. Saucy fellow.
I observed her, sitting beside me, there with her long hair, her smooth femininity, the long fingers and that helpless-independent air she had, so typical of intelligent women who cannot come to terms with the fact that women, are, on the whole, more analytical than men, but they had not yet learned, like my scientist friends, to think in modules. They think realistically, in structures of relationships, while the world is a very queer place, as many a cosmologist will attest, the most solid assumption often resting on the flimsiest spider web. Or did I have Hawking confused with Fitzgerald?
Men are dreamers; women have discovered the sharpness of their wit. This is the meaning of 1977. People used to think it was the other way around. Only now are the fetters surrounding women being removed. For traditionally, it was the man who was adventurous, explored continents, was shot off int space. Now it is the woman's turn, and it is a healthy development if women can pick up the facility for dreaming. For without dreams, in cold logic alone there is the Russian woman astronaut, the Chinese garbage man-woman. Totalitarian societies (like our own?) have a habit of giving women what appears to be emancipation, but what is in the end the oppression of both sexes. We cannot believe, with the rest of society that we operate in a democracy. It took a genius like Arthur Miller to develop a view sophisticated enough to see the Democratic and Communist systems as being nothing more than competing bureaucracies. Who knows where our trends, fashions, styles emanate from. Stay alert. Use your head.
These flashes were leaping around as I examined Valerie and suddenly it dawned on me that intellectuality itself was an escape, that we were sentient, but relatively helpless, mutually dependent animals and I suddenly realized how lonely I was, how my life overnight was heaped up into a ball of loneliness, the life of snapped continuity, habit, familiarity. I had to come here, I know, to put an end to the twenty years of hard research, the set-up of my computer centre, the interdepartmental politics, the heavy smoking the drinking, the forced-smile faculty dos. I had succeeded in Canada, but there was a price to it. I was realizing, here in Mexico, that this was the end of the social climber trying so hard not to be a misfit, here at this junction on the slope side of one's thirties. This was the end for a man who had to work so very hard at nearly everything, a man for whom nothing really came too easily, who was so relieved to find the computer crutch, who, in the absence of parental savvy, had to learn very nearly everything for himself, for an insane mother and an abstracted father could not be trusted from a very early age. Punishment for nothing, and this plays havoc with a child's sense of security. The world become your tutor., I had learned well, learned ultimately (perhaps somehow through my father, hidden from me) that the world is a wonderful and many- faceted place beyond imagining once your neuroses and personal conundrums are worked out. A day really comes when you see the world for the first time. Yet there was the loneliness that may yet lead to even more confusion if you end up in someone's bed. Married man. Plain old-fashioned Sin, the evil that many priests had warned me about back in my Separate School youth. Something always thwarts our efforts as we incline towards truth and beauty, says Matthew Arnold somewhere. And that something may be Sin. Biblical matrix. Five thousand years of living.
I didn't care. My loneliness had reached the stage of doing anything anywhere, with anybody just to lose one's sense of ones lonely awful self.
Valerie and I introduced ourselves and we eventually made quite an inroad into the brandy. I was about to order another bottle, the conversation going well. I was trying to impress my mystique upon her, and it seemed that I was having some success.
But she was more sober that I, perhaps more assessful. She thought a bit about another bottle. Alcoholic relationships are so seductive until the brandy bottle pile up, until the squalor sets in, the blanked-out evenings. She had a past. Yes, yes, in the cold light of day, before the coffee, one suspects that one has finally slipped into bum hood and it is only the alcohol that greases your optimism, makes you look good to yourself, while to the world, especially if you do drugs too, you have a snake crawling out jof your mouth and you are a stumbling social disaster. Or graduate to the spike.
She thought a long time before finally saying, "Meet me at my house at nine. Here is my address." She had scribbled it on a napkin with the heraldic town emblem on it. The napkin did have the look and feel of leather. She may as well have written a new constitution for my life.
I could not believe that first night. After all the clubs, after all the Spanish music, Malagena Sale Rosa, country girl of the red room, yes, how red and plush the room were, she a fantasy in her her long white gown of a peasant cut, the red-and-blue flowers on each side of her halter, the amber haze of the drinks, the dancing, and later, the two of us quietly sitting across the table from each other, the light a warm yellow and our gazes warmer still, it seemed. She looked at me, a medium-sized mousy-haired leprechaunish man with bright blues yes that tended to fix, and I regarded her, yes, also of blue, but pale, like the natural paleness of her skin, a fragile aristocratic natural paleness that so many California girls possessed in that part of the world nearly devoid of aristocracy save, perhaps of the movie stars. And Valerie, to my gaze, was every inch a move star, and I was probably half right, though lord knows what kind of movies she may have been in. Gorgeous, graceful woman all the same.
She continued to gaze at me with those large pale blue eyes under long lashes, natural, like Greta Garbo's. You could almost pull at them. High cheekbones. High forehead. Face held high, maybe a little too high. Our gaze held. We had found each other.