In addition to bringing my mom the underwear, I was supposed to use this trip to tell her I was gay, to ask her to start talking to Grandpa again so that I didn’t have to feel bad about taking his tuition checks, and to generally make up for the ten years that I was in California, in middle school and high school and college, and she was in Mexico, in the city and then at the beach.
She was supposed to meet me at the airport, but at the last minute she told me that it was safer to take buses than cars late at night. She said I had taken buses in Mexico before but I was pretty sure I hadn’t. All the other times I visited my mom in Mexico, she lived in her parents’ house in Mexico City, and Grandpa’s driver would come and get me at the airport.
My mom told me to take a taxi from the airport to the south bus station, a bus from there to Acapulco, and another bus from Acapulco to Pie de la Cuesta. In the taxi in Mexico City we passed the exit for Rio Piedad, and I wished we were driving to Grandpa’s house. My mom had told me not to tell him that I was coming, but now I wondered if it would be a good way to get her to talk to him, to tell her that she had to come to his house if she wanted to see me. In the meantime I could go to sleep right away, and swim in Grandpa’s pool, and have his driver go get me tacos.
I slept on the bus to Acapulco, and when we got there it was still dark. I was half awake waiting for the bus to Pie de la Cuesta and when it came it wasn’t a bus with air conditioning and a stewardess and soda and chips like the one I’d just taken. It was a city bus that wound along the coast at what felt like a hundred miles an hour, but when the bus wasn’t turning and I wasn’t looking off the dark cliff, I realized it was probably more like twenty. There were five other passengers and they were asleep so they seemed calm. Only the bus driver and I were awake and listening to the staticky radio.
The sun rose behind the bus. I started to get nervous when we wound down the cliff. My mom said that when the bus got to town and passed her pink hotel, El Flamenco, I was supposed to yell ‘Bajan!’ and get out. As we drove, there were more and more houses on the right side of the road and more and more hotels on the left side, where the beach was. Finally the houses were stuck together, and the hotels were almost stuck together. The hotels looked like motels to me, and there was more than one pink one. Finally I saw El Flamenco and stood up to yell but I couldn’t do it. I sat back down and pretended like, oh man, I almost got off at the wrong stop again. Five hotels and ten houses later, the teenager in the back seat yelled ‘Bajan!’ and I got off with him. I pulled out the handle to my suitcase and started walking back toward the hotel.
When I saw El Flamenco again, my mom was standing outside under a string of paper lights.
‘Lala!’ she said and ran toward me. She was wearing woven shorts and a white tank top and she looked really good. Her boobs were huge and her arms were toned and she was so brown.
She gave me a million kisses all over my face and my hands. She touched my hair, which had always been long but now was short. She started to cry.
‘Hi Mama,’ I said.
‘Hi baby,’ she said. ‘I knew that was your bus. You’re so beautiful.’ She took my free hand and I wheeled my suitcase into the courtyard. There was a pool in the middle with strings of lights around it, and the doors to the rooms were around the courtyard in an L-shape. The office was separate from the L, between the pool and the street.
She opened the door and we went inside. It was cool in there and I wondered if she was the only person in Pie de la Cuesta with air conditioning. Her apartment was above the office, and we walked up the stairs. It looked like no one lived there—there were no plants or pictures or glasses of water, just a couch and a wooden chair in the living room, and a square table and two more chairs in the kitchen. In the bedroom she put my suitcase down. There was a bed with no frame and another chair. But the bed had her same white sheets on it, these sheets that cost a million dollars and feel like clouds and smell like clouds.
My mom got into the bed and I got in with her. She traced the spot on my forehead where she said I had a swirl of hair as a baby. Every muscle in my body relaxed. She stroked my head and then I was ten years old and we were lying in the cloud sheets in Los Angeles and I was crying because we had to put our dog Maria von Trapp to sleep. That night my mom stroked my head until I fell asleep. I don’t know where my dad was, he was there when we put Maria to sleep but then not there later.
After a while my mom said, ‘Are you hungry, baby?’ and it brought me back to being twenty and I was embarrassed to be in bed with my mom and I wanted to sit up but I was too weak. I tried to open my eyes and my mom laughed at me.
‘I’m starving,’ I said.
She went to the kitchen and made me an egg sandwich, which is one of my favourite things, with Oaxaca cheese, which is another one of my favourite things. She cut up a papaya and two bananas and she ate the fruit while I ate the sandwich.
After breakfast I asked my mom if I could make a phone call.
‘Of course baby, who do you want to call?’
‘I want to tell Dad that I got in safe.’
‘Oh,’ she said. She said that the phone in the office didn’t make long distance calls, but she gave me a phonecard and told me that there was a payphone to the left of the hotel.
When I got to the phone I dialled my girlfriend’s number. I had told Dana that I would call her every day but now that I was here I didn’t really feel like it.
‘Hey it’s me,’ I said when she picked up.
‘Hi!’ she said. ‘I was so worried about you.’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘I told you I would call you when I got here.’
‘I know, but I was worried. How’s your mom?’
‘She’s fine. How are you?’
‘I’m really great. I haven’t eaten or used an animal product in forty-two days.’
‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘That’s good.’
‘Did you come out to your mom yet?’
‘No. I’ve only been here for like an hour.’
‘I can’t wait for you to tell her. I’m so proud of you.’
I told her I would call her the next day and then I hung up by accident.
Then I called my dad and made the mistake of telling him about the buses.
‘You got in in the middle of the night,’ he said, ‘and your mother couldn’t pick you up?’
‘It’s safer to take the buses at night,’ I said.
‘This is not what we agreed,’ he said. ‘I’m going to call her.’
‘Dad. Please don’t call her. I’m fine. I want to have a good time.’
He said he would wait until I was back to call her, and I said okay and hoped he would forget by then. He told me to call Dana because she had called the house twice. He made me promise to wear sunscreen and to not go swimming. He said he was reading about Pie de la Cuesta on the internet and the undertow was deadly.
When I got back to the apartment my mom said, ‘Ready to go to the beach?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘Do you have the underwear?’ she said.
‘Yeah.’ I opened my suitcase and took out the underwear and my bathing suit.
‘Did you get the bags?’ said my mom.
I was supposed to get fifty striped bags to go with the fifty pairs of underwear.
‘They would only give me ten,’ I said and gave them to her.
‘Okay,’ said my mom. ‘I can give them to the girls who buy a lot.’
I went into the bathroom and took off my shorts and T-shirt. My mom came in behind me and snapped my underwear band and said, ‘You should get yourself some new underwear.’
I imagined myself wearing the pair I bought that said ‘Boys Boys Boys’ a thousand times in black letters. My mom said to get as many pairs with English words on them as possible. Another pair said ‘See you tonight,’ and I thought those were really funny, because if someone else was seeing them, wasn’t it already tonight? Unless it was a reminder to yourself, like, see you tonight when I take my pants off again.
‘I like my underwear,’ I said.
‘They’re kind of sturdy,’ said my mom. They were grey and boy-style but for girls, and I wondered if she thought they were butch. I wanted her to think so, so that I wouldn’t have to tell her.
‘I’m going to put my suit on, okay?’ I said.
‘Oh, okay,’ she said and left the bathroom.
When I was done I went back out to the living room. My mom came out of the bedroom wearing a terry cloth dress. ‘Do you want to borrow a beach dress?’ she said.
‘No,’ I said.
‘We have to sell ourselves if we want to sell the underwear,’ she said.
‘I don’t want to sell myself,’ I said.
‘Okay don’t sell yourself,’ said my mom, ‘sell the American dream.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘This underwear is going to fly people to the US and get them green cards and jobs at hotels and then they’re going to win the lottery?’
‘Ha,’ said my mom. ‘Come on, let’s go. I have to be back for check out at noon.’
‘And then they’ll buy forty cars and go bankrupt and have to come back to Mexico?’
‘Ha ha. Are you ready?’ She had the underwear sorted by size in three of the bags.
‘We’re selling the underwear now?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘It’s Saturday, a lot of kids are going to be at the beach.’
It was starting to get really hot outside. We walked through the row of palm trees that separated the hotels from the beach. On the other side was sand and water, and some sets of tables and chairs under a thatched roof. The sky was almost clear except for thin stripes of clouds. As we made our way to the water I saw that there were already people weaving in and out of the sunbathers and selling things—women with buckets of something, a woman carrying a bottle and calling ‘masajes, masajes,’ and a man leading a pony and offering rides. I wondered what my mom’s plan was. She was ahead of me at the water.
‘Put your feet in,’ she said. ‘It’s nice.’
I went in up to my knees and it was nice. The rest of my body was getting hot and I wanted to go in all the way. There were kids swimming and I wondered if my dad was wrong.
‘I can go swimming, right?’ I said.
‘I wouldn’t, baby, the current is so strong.’
‘Those kids are swimming.’
‘I really wanted to go swimming,’ I said.
‘You can swim in the pool,’ she said. ‘And I’ll take you to the lagoon on Monday, it’s gorgeous.’
We walked along the water toward where it looked more crowded.
‘So, are there any boys I should know about?’ said my mom. Always her first question.
‘Nope,’ I said. ‘Still no boys.’ That was always my answer, and she never seemed to think it was weird or some kind of clue, which she shouldn’t have needed anyway. Shouldn’t she have noticed when I was born? Wasn’t there something about me that told her I was going to grow up to cut my hair and wear sturdy underwear and date a girl who brought her biker boots to textile recycling and then bought identical ones made out of polyurethane? And if not when I was born, she should have noticed in elementary school when I was obsessed with amphibians and reptiles and my friend Emily. And if still not then, she definitely would have noticed in middle school, when I hit puberty and was confused and, according to my dad, really weird. But she was already gone.
I followed my mom out of the water and into the crowd of towels and people. She didn’t say anything or approach anyone.
‘How do you say underwear again?’ I said.
‘Pantis,’ said my mom.
‘Pantis! Pantis!’ I called.
‘Lala!’ said my mom.
‘I was going to go up to girls that looked like they would want them.’
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘good plan.’
We walked through the people until my mom spotted four girls and an older man together. She went up to them and said she was selling ropa interior from Victoria’s Secret, and would they like to buy any?
One girl sat straight up and said, ‘Papá, me encanta el secreto de Victoria!’
The dad looked at her and at my mom and frowned. ‘Huh,’ he said.
The other girls sat up too, and soon my mom was spreading out the underwear on one of their towels. The daughter picked out like eight pairs. One of the other girls looked at ‘See you tonight’ and said, ‘Hubba hubba.’
‘Those are my favourite,’ I said.
‘Su favorito,’ said my mom.
I wasn’t sure that they were impressed with me because I was starting to get sweaty, but the daughter grabbed a pair of the same ones and looked at her dad.
‘A cuanto?’ he asked my mom.
The dad raised his eyebrows but they bought three pairs. Then we sold some more pairs to another group of girls nearby, and when we were walking away my mom said, ‘See?’
Back at the hotel my mom checked some Swiss people out and I went swimming in the pool. Later my mom came out and read, and I spent the afternoon sleeping until I was too hot, and then swimming until I was too tired.
At the end of the day we went back to the beach to watch the sunset. My mom said that when the sun set in Pie de la Cuesta, it lit up the backs of the waves, and you could see the silhouettes of kids swimming. Tonight the waves were too small, although they didn’t look small to me. If I was braver I would have gone in and felt the water rush over my body and my head, and I probably would have been fine. But I was scared. My mom wasn’t one to tell me something was dangerous if it wasn’t. And she was sometimes one to tell me something was safe when it wasn’t.
When the sun went down we went back to the apartment and got ready to go out to dinner. My mom came out of the bathroom with make-up on and said, ‘My friend is going to meet us at the restaurant. Is that okay?’
‘A man?’ I said.
‘No, a woman. Of course, baby, a man. His name is Martin and he’s from Paris. You’re going to love his accent.’ She pronounced Paris like Pah-ree.
‘Great,’ I said.
The restaurant was ten hotels down and when we got close we saw Martin waiting outside. He was tall and skinny and he waved at us.
‘Oh shit. I forgot to tell you something,’ said my mom. ‘I only speak Spanish, okay? I’ll explain later.’
‘How am I supposed to talk to you?’ I said.
‘You speak Spanish.’
‘I haven’t spoken Spanish since I was five,’ I said.
Now Martin was twenty feet from us and he said, ‘Hola!’
‘Bonsoir!’ called my mom.
‘Jesus,’ I said.
Martin gave my mom a kiss on the cheek. He shook my hand and gave me a kiss on the cheek too. He had a big nose but he was handsome and he had a lot of hair, which my mom likes. He didn’t have a French moustache or anything. He was wearing a white button-up shirt and grey shorts.
The restaurant was a big patio, and there were folding chairs and folding tables with picnic covers. There were a lot of families with little kids. We sat at a table in the back and it felt like we were right on the beach. It was dark but I could see the waves licking the sand.
I ordered a pina colada and my mom ordered a bottle of wine for her and Martin.
I looked at the menu and didn’t know what any of the fish were except for camarones, and I hate shrimp. ‘I don’t know what to get,’ I said in English.
‘The pulpo, it is very good,’ said Martin. ‘This is octopus.’
‘A ella no le gusta comer pulpo,’ said my mom. ‘Mija, te encantaría el pargo de piedra.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
While we were waiting for our food, Martin asked me what I was studying in school. I gave him the speech I give strangers about my research—how there’s so much information about lead poisoning in paint, but almost none about lead in soil, and kids are so much more likely to eat soil, and the community where I’m doing research relies on their gardens for food.
‘This is very interesting,’ said Martin. ‘Your mother has not told me about this.’
‘Te lo he dicho,’ said my mom. ‘Pero es tan complicado y ella es tan inteligente.’
They talked to each other in Spanish for the rest of the dinner, about me and stuff that I did when I was a kid, like one time in San Francisco when I kept catching fish and no one else caught any and they thought I could talk to animals. My mom said she knew I was going to be a doctor or a scientist. I tried to laugh at the right times but I had trouble following what they were saying.
After dinner we said goodbye to Martin and he walked in the other direction. On the way back to the hotel, my mom told me that Martin didn’t know about Grandpa or Grandma or that she had lived in the States with me and Dad. She thought he wouldn’t think she was interesting if he knew that Grandpa was rich and not Mexican, and that Grandma came from a government family and was legally Mexican, but genetically at least fifty per cent Spanish, and emotionally one hundred per cent white. My mom didn’t want Martin to know that she spoke English and went to Berkeley and lived in California for fourteen years and drove a Mercedes and then a Range Rover, so she told him she lived in Mexico City the whole time and drove her old VW the whole time, and I went to live with my dad in the States so that I could go to a good school. My mom said that the first time they met Martin told her he loved her simple life, and she didn’t want to tell him about me at all, but then she had to because I was coming.
When we got back to the apartment my mom kept her sandals on.
‘Baby, you’re just going to go to sleep, right? Would you mind if I went to Martin’s apartment to say goodnight, and I’ll come right back?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Are you just going to go to sleep?’
‘I think so,’ I said. ‘I’m exhausted.’
‘Okay baby, you go to bed then. Do you have everything you need?’
My mom left and I took off my dress and put on a tank top. I washed my feet in the shower and brushed my teeth with her toothbrush. I got into bed with my book but when I put my head on the pillow it was all I could do to reach over and turn out the light before I fell asleep.
When I woke up it was early. The light coming into the room was white but not hot. I looked at the clock and it was 6.40. I didn’t want to wake up my mom so I read in bed until 7.20. Then I really had to pee, so I left the room quietly and was about to turn into the bathroom when I realized there was no one on the couch.
‘Mom?’ I said.
She wasn’t in the bathroom and she wasn’t in the kitchen, and I figured she must be in the office doing an early check out or something. I peed and put on shorts and a T-shirt and went downstairs, hoping that no one would see me.
She wasn’t in the office and she wasn’t outside the office and I didn’t see her going in or out of any of the guest rooms. I went back up to the apartment. I had a feeling she was still at Martin’s, but what if she wasn’t? I started to feel sick. I sat down in one of the chairs in the kitchen. What if something happened to her when she was walking back from Martin’s? There was this town in Maine where I went with my dad and his girlfriend a couple of summers in high school and every year when we got there, there had just been a murder on the beach. They were never premeditated; they were all just drunk people with knives.
I was sure my mom was fine but my chest felt tight. I picked up my book to distract myself, but I couldn’t read. I felt like I should eat something but I wasn’t hungry. Finally I did the kind of breathing that my doctor taught me to help me sleep at night, where you tell yourself to breathe in and breathe out and you’re not allowed to think about anything else, which I now know is called meditation. It never worked that well for me but I didn’t know what else to do. I thought I should call Martin, but I didn’t have his number or know where he lived.
Instead I called Dana from the phone in the office. I hoped it cost a million dollars.
‘Hello?’ said Dana. ‘Lala!’ I had woken her up. ‘Did you do it?’
‘Did you tell her?’
‘What? No. I don’t even know where she is.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know where she is. I think she’s at her boyfriend’s house. But she never came back last night.’
‘Oh my god, Lala, that’s horrible.’
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘I’m sure she’ll be home any minute.’
‘God, I hope so,’ she said. ‘Are you going to tell her when she gets back?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Of course, I’ll tell her right away.’
‘Are you being sarcastic?’
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Maybe I’ll hide in the kitchen and when she comes in I’ll jump out and shout “I’m gay!” ’
‘You’re being sarcastic.’
I told Dana I had to go. Even when I found my mom, I wasn’t going to tell her. Maybe I would tell Dana that I did and that my mom and I both cried, and my mom told me that she knew all along and she loved me no matter what. I didn’t think it would count as lying because it didn’t really matter if my mom knew or not.
I hung up and dialled my grandpa in Mexico City.
I heard the office door open a little after 9.00, and I heard my mom’s sandals on the stairs. I went into the living room as she opened the door to the apartment.
‘Baby,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think you’d be up.’
‘Where were you?’ I said. I didn’t want to touch her but I gave her a hug because I wanted to feel that she was okay.
‘I stayed at Martin’s. I thought I would get back before you got up.’
‘I got up really early,’ I said. ‘I had no idea where you were.’
‘Oh baby,’ she said.
‘I thought something bad happened to you on the way back last night,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m really sorry. Let me make you something to eat.’
She went into the kitchen and started cutting up fruit and I went into the bedroom and started packing my bag.
When I went back to the kitchen she said, ‘What do you want to do today, baby? Do you want to just lie on the beach? You’re so pale.’
‘That’s because I thought you got murdered,’ I said.
‘Oh Lala, are you really that upset about it? I wouldn’t have left you if I knew you would worry, but you’re a big girl, I thought you’d be fine.’
‘I wasn’t fine,’ I said. ‘I think I might go to Grandpa’s.’
‘Then you can hang out with Martin as much as you want.’
‘I only saw him when you were sleeping, baby. I didn’t think you would care.’
‘And at dinner. And you said you were coming right back.’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I won’t see him again while you’re here. I’ll take you to Acapulco. We’ll go to the beach and we’ll go see the cliff divers.’
‘I told Grandpa I was coming.’
‘You called him?’ She started to cry.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I was mad.’
She cried and cried and I looked at the ceiling.
Finally I felt too bad and said, ‘Maybe we can go to Acapulco before I leave.’
She looked up. ‘Yeah?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘It’s on the way.’
She cried harder for a few seconds and then she slowed down and her breathing went back to normal and after a minute she stood up and went to the sink and splashed her face with water.
‘Should we go now?’ she said. ‘We might make it to see the divers at noon.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘If we wear bathing suits we can go to the beach after. You can go in the water there.’
‘I should bring that Victoria’s Secret underwear. Those beaches are full of rich Mexicans. I could charge a lot more. I could make a killing.’
‘Great,’ I said. I could tell that this had been the plan all along. ‘Grandpa would help you, you know.’
‘That is such a smart idea, Lala. I don’t why I never thought of that.’
‘Fine,’ I said, stung.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘That was mean.’
We put on our suits and got ready to go.
‘Should I bring my bag?’ I said.
‘It’s up to you,’ she said.
‘I can always bring it back here,’ I said.
‘Right,’ she said, and gave me a weak smile.
We took the bus to Acapulco, and when we got there we bought juices and walked up to the Quebrada. I wheeled my suitcase and my mom carried her bags of underwear. When we got to the entrance my mom bought tickets, and we went in and found a spot at the wall. We could already see the divers on top of the cliff, in the bright sun. Below them, the cliff went down at an angle, and it looked like when they dove they were going to hit the rock.
‘Martin and I came to see them at night,’ she said. ‘They dive with torches, and we met some of those boys. Some of them are pretty cute.’
‘Oh yeah?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘You’re going to meet such a cute boy, you’ll see. I didn’t meet your dad until the end of college.’
It felt like I was either going to tell my mom in the next five minutes, or my mouth was going to do it for me. My heart started to pound.
‘I don’t want to meet a boy,’ I said.
‘Oh I know, baby, all you want to do is your research. But that will change.’
‘No, mama, I want to meet girls. I like girls.’
‘Oh,’ she said. Her eyebrows went up. ‘Wow.’
‘I had no idea,’ she said.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘You never wondered about it?’
‘No,’ she said.
I waited for her to say something and then I decided to help her because I didn’t want to be mad at her.
‘Now you’re supposed to say that you love me no matter what,’ I said.
‘Oh baby,’ she said, ‘of course I love you no matter what.’ She pulled me into her shoulder and held me tight. ‘Of course I love you no matter what.’
After a minute she said, ‘Are you going to tell your dad?’
‘He knows,’ I said.
‘Oh really?’ she said. ‘How did he take that news?’
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘Huh,’ she said.
‘Why wouldn’t he?’ I said.
‘I don’t know, he can be so rigid.’
‘He’s been really good,’ I said.
Now there were more divers on top of the cliff and they stood in a circle and put their arms around each other and their heads down.
‘When did you tell him?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘High school.’
‘Oh my god. Lala. Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It didn’t seem urgent.’
‘Why are you telling me now?’ She sounded mad.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘There’s this girl and she thought I should tell you.’
‘You didn’t want to tell me?’
‘No, I did, I wanted you to know.’
Now one of the boys was climbing down the cliff, and he stopped and stood. The people around us cheered, and he flew off the cliff, his back arched and his arms spread like eagle wings.
‘I wish you’d told me when you told your dad.’
‘You weren’t there,’ I said.
The diver entered the water with a high splash.
‘You came to visit,’ she said.
‘I don’t know, Mom.’
She looked away and I could hear her breathing deeply. ‘Lala, you are breaking my heart,’ she said. She didn’t look at me. ‘I’ll meet you outside.’ She walked up the stairs and I stayed and watched the cliff. The boys prayed and dove forward and backward and did flips and double flips. Right after they jumped they were still in front of the sun for a split second, and then they rushed into the water. At the beginning I had been worried about them, but now it seemed less real, like they were on automatic or something, or like I was watching them from very far away. From very far away I watched them jump off the cliff one or two at a time, and finally three at a time.
My mom was waiting outside the entrance for me. We walked back down to the Zocalo without talking. When we got there she said, ‘I guess you have to get on that bus, huh? If you want to get to the city before dark.’
‘You could come to Grandpa’s,’ I said.
‘You know that I can’t,’ she said.
‘I don’t really understand why not.’
‘That’s okay,’ she said.
We walked to the bus stop and when she saw the bus coming she hugged me.
‘Bye, baby,’ she said.
‘Bye, Mama,’ I said.
‘Maybe I’ll come to the States.’
‘Okay.’ I hugged her again. ‘I love you,’ I said.
‘I love you, too,’ she said and kissed me.
I took the bus to the bus terminal and then waited for the bus to Mexico City. I was really tired. When the bus came I sat in my seat and closed my eyes. I imagined my mom on the beach, kneeling on rich people’s towels, telling them that the ‘See you tonight’ underwear were her daughter’s favourite.
Image courtesy of Sarah C