A Different Mexico

Rosarito Beach, Mexico – July 1998

Sometimes I wonder if certain places are imprinted on our souls. Despite all efforts, we are destined to return to these places, over and over, until we’ve learned what we’re supposed to learn.

Once again, this beach. Coarse, dirty sand. Gray-blue waves. Sea mist clings to my skin like scum. Even under this bright July sun everything seems to be covered in a dingy film. I just want to scrub it all off. Once again, I’ve allowed myself to be coerced into coming here. Maya and Deanna’s friend Landy invited us to his family’s vacation home. In the excitement of making preparations, no one noticed my silent hesitation. I didn’t have an excuse to stay behind. I was between jobs. I had the money. Maya rolled her eyes when I told her about what had happened here before, about what that man did to me. How we ended up in Rosarito Beach as some sort of sick honeymoon. Jay is bringing Little Jay. I don’t have space in my car for Deanna, she said. How is she gonna go if you don’t drive?

He needed me to drive, too. That man. Passive-aggression can be a more effective form of intimidation than a gun to the head.

Deanna was visiting Maya when I arrived in Phoenix a few days ago. Yet another cross country move, yet another escape. We lazed by the pool in the furnace heat and caught up on the three years since I’d left Guam. Deanna. Numba One Dansa at Vikings Tavern. Deep olive skin, unruly brown curls, a smile that outblazes the sun. Sicilian and Cherokee heritage. Her home is the stage. After hours, she is a karaoke queen. An undiscovered Las Vegas lounge legend. Most people are too dazzled by her charisma to notice the jagged white scars on the insides of her wrists. They rise from her flesh like bleached barbed wire. When she drinks too much, her rage cannot be restrained. Shattered glass ensues. A scream that pierces the cacophony and scatters the crowd. An anguish that freezes the heart.

We filled my little truck with chatter and laughter as we drove towards Mexico. I’d never spent so much time alone with her. Whenever I would find myself alone with her in the dressing room at Vikings, her face would tighten and she’d walk away. Maya informed me that Deanna didn’t like me because I wasn’t ethnic enough. Or not the right kind of ethnic, she smirked. My heart wilted.

But on this drive, Deanna and I talked. Of things petty and profound. Of everything, it seems, except her brother who committed suicide. Or of my previous time in Rosarito Beach. If Maya didn’t care then Deanna wouldn’t, either. Maybe this visit would be wonderful. Landy was a fun guy. Maybe Rosarito Beach was calling me to it again to make amends.

A gust of cold, dirty wind snaps me back to the present. I sink into my towel and close my eyes. Nothing could redeem this place.

Landy springs to his feet and shrieks, “Deanna! Let’s go for a swim!”

“I’m going for a walk with Julie.” She grabs my hand and pulls me up and away.

He glares at me and trots towards the waves.

When we arrived in Rosarito Beach, Landy’s parents – Jorge and Pilar – were already here. Jorge is a poet who suffers from depression. Landy told us to just ignore his “weirdness”. We stretched out on the well-worn sofas while Landy slipped out for a few minutes to meet some friends. He returned with a flat, steely glint in his eyes. The muscles in his face flexed as his jaw moved back and forth. With every trip to the bathroom, his warm, laid-back personality seeped away. Everyone disappeared from his vision except Deanna. He followed her from living room to porch to beach. His voice became a shriek. “C’mon, Deanna! Have some beers with me! Let’s go for a walk!”

Deanna’s smile faltered. Maya set up her space away from ours, between us and Jay and Little Jay. Back turned. Do not disturb. Deanna moved closer to me, shielding herself. This is a girl who strikes fear into the men who dare to insult her. I’ve seen her whip off her high heels and fly into the crowd, completely naked, to throttle some loudmouth. It took two bouncers to pull her off. She thinks that I can protect her now, that I’m somehow stronger than she is. A flash of red across my vision. I will do whatever it takes.

I keep my eyes on the sand in front of me as we walk. That hotel is along this beach somewhere. This ugly beach. The dingy sand grates against my sandals. A cold, aloof breeze.

Some say that Northern Baja is not the real Mexico. I understand their point. Tijuana is a vortex of filth. The beaches are desolate. Dead-eyed, barefoot children roam the streets. No one has light in their eyes.

There’s no unreal of anywhere. One day, I’d like to see a different Mexico. A vibrant, mystical Mexico. Oaxaca, Copper Canyon, Chiapas, the Yucatan. A Mexico undefiled by memory.

A nudge on my shoulder. That gravelly voice. “What’s wrong with you, anyway? Why do you hate this place so much?”

I open my mouth and let the memory tumble out. I’d had a run of bad luck all those years ago. Financial struggle, heartbreak. But what happened that weekend was the thing that finally engulfed me. Almost a decade later, I’ve pulled myself up from the depths. Knee deep, now. Almost to shore. It will only take one strong wave to pull me back into the abyss.

Deanna shakes her head and sighs. “Girl, you name me one woman that hasn’t happened to at least once.”

We walk in silence until there’s no place to go but back. We settle ourselves back on our towels. Landy resurfaces. He pauses to shake himself off, and then he struts toward us in deliberate slo-mo. Chest puffed out. Arms bowed and flexed. He pauses halfway. A haughty flick of his slimy waist-length hair over his shoulder.

Deanna groans. “God, he’s so gross. He hasn’t taken a shower in days.”

Landy towers above us. He narrows his eyes at me. A shrewd calculating gleam. I am the obstacle. We lock eyes. Go ahead. Mess with me, punk. He grits his teeth, flops down on the sand, and crosses his arms with a petulant huff.

A hot wave washes over me. Just what is it, then, that I still need to learn here? Because I think I’ve got it.

So grateful for the sundown. One day done, just one more to go. Back at the house now. Landy storms into the living room. “Deanna, we can sleep in my bed! C’mon, Deanna!” He stops and clenches his fists. Through gritted teeth he proclaims, “I just wanna cuddle!”

Everyone bursts into laughter.

Jorge shuffles into the room, pauses, puts his head in his hands, and then lifts his eyes heavenward, face contorted with torment of biblical proportions. Pilar looks from her husband to her son, shakes her head in disgust and retreats to the kitchen.

Deanna grabs my hand. “Me and Julie are sleeping in your room.” We stretch out on the bed and close our eyes. The door flies open. Landy marches to the foot of the bed and proclaims, “This is my room. I’m sleeping here.” He dives in between us. Deanna and I squeal and flee to my truck. Legs tucked against dashboard, heads leaned against the windows. No worse than trying to sleep on an airplane, we agree. But our fury keeps us awake. Doors locked, windows rolled up. Just a tiny crack for air. In this comfortable cocoon, Deanna tells me of the men she has loved. The mooches, the cheaters, the beaters. And the men who have loved her. The boring nice guys who wanted to rescue her. Why are we so willing to sacrifice our souls to those who hurt us?

Sunrise brings silence. Relief and a little regret. We can leave now. Maya wants to linger, however. Little Jay wants to go to the beach again. In the late afternoon, we bid farewell to Jorge and Pilar. Landy emerges from his room, arms outstretched for Deanna. She walks out the door without a word. Pilar shakes her head. “That’s what you get for being an asshole, Landy.”

On the six hour drive drive back to Arizona, we imitate Landy’s surfer dude voice. I just wanna cuddle! Over and over. But we laugh every single time. Darkened desert outside the window. Faint lights appear in the distance. Mexicali on the right. El Centro on the left. “Mesopotamia” by the B-52s emanates from the radio. I sing along.

Deanna convulses with laughter. “Only you would know what the hell Mesopot whatever is!” The laughter subsides. “You’re going to write my book one day when I’m famous. Promise me, Julie.”

“Okay, I promise.” A shadow flits across my brain. Melancholy’s soft grip around my throat.

Her fame will never come to pass. Like me, she has that all-powerful voice in her mind. The one that tells you that you’ve got so much potential, but you’re not worthy of fulfilling it. I contemplate what we both could have been, if only certain things hadn’t happened. Static engulfs the music. I switch off the radio, allowing the silence to prevail.


I lost touch with Deanna not long after this trip. A few years ago, during my very brief time on Facebook, I searched for her. I was eager to tell her that she was the inspiration for one of the characters in my novel Blue. But there was no sign of her. Maybe she got married and changed her name, I told myself. Maybe, like me, she just wasn’t into Facebook. Her absence was an ominous void. I finally tracked down a mutual friend, another dancer from Guam. She confirmed my fears. Several years earlier, Deanna had taken herself out of this world forever.

The Woman Who Used to Be Me

**Warning: Heavy subject matter. I overcame my hesitation about posting this, because, in the 23 years since this incident, the situation for women has only gotten worse. I’ve decided to add my small voice to the crowd, because there’s always more strength in numbers.**

Somewhere in northern Baja California, Mexico – November 23, 1989

The bartender from work drives her car down the two lane highway that snakes alongside the beige, desiccated cliffs of northern Baja California. The woman who used to be me huddles in a blanket on the passenger side and stares out the window. Everything seems alien – the car, the man, herself, the landscape. It’s as if she’s viewing reality from behind fingerprint-smudged glass. The sea appears immobile – waves frozen into ripples. Sun rays pierce the clouds, illuminating two small islands.

“They’re uninhabited.” His voice penetrates the fog in her mind. “The Mexican government uses them for bomb testing.”

She flinches. She’s not yet ready to hear her voice again or to communicate with him. The drugs that she was forced to take are wearing off. A slow recession like an outgoing tide. Desolation awaits her in sobriety. She crumples in the seat and closes her eyes. She’s detached from the world. Unmoored and drifting away.

Shards of last night cut through her mind. The entire staff from the restaurant met for drinks at a local dive. It was the night before Thanksgiving, so no one had to work the next day. It was the first time that they were all able to party together. She’d recently celebrated her twenty-first birthday, and was thrilled that she could finally go out with them. She stiffened when the bartender sat next to her. No one liked him. He was a hostile presence behind the bar. Stalking back and forth like a caged predator, casting looks of contempt at the wait staff. You people can’t do anything right. Yet he often screwed up the easiest of cocktails.

“Jack Daniels is what you drink, right?” he said, setting a glass down next to her.

She nodded, feeling annoyed, and then a small pang of guilt at being annoyed. He was trying to be nice. Maybe she shouldn’t be so hard on him.

“Let’s try to get along, okay?”

She smiled. “Okay.” Maybe she just didn’t know him well enough. Maybe he had an interesting side. The others beckoned from the dance floor.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I need a couple of drinks before I can dance. I’ll keep an eye on yours.”

She must not have eaten enough. Or they must give generous shots. After two drinks the edges of reality began to darken. One by one the others disappeared.

Fade to black.

And then shadow and light. The bartender from work’s kitchen. She swayed and tried to speak. How did she get here? He grabbed her face and shoved a tiny piece of paper into her mouth. His large hands clamped over her jaw so she couldn’t spit it out. “C’mon, stop fighting me. It’s LSD. You’ll love it.”

Fade to black.

An EconoLodge next to a freeway. Morning. Someone moving rhythmically on top of her. She opened her eyes. Oh no. No.

“We’re here,” the bartender from work says, jarring her back to the present. He pulls into a parking place, throws the engine into park, and turns off the car. His movements are sharp, they cut through the air like potential blows. “The Rosarito Beach Hotel. This place is a landmark.”

She stands next to the car as he gathers their things out of the trunk. She could scream and run into the hotel. If she could only find her voice again. However, it would be his word against hers. How could she explain the fact that she had brought a backpack, had spent time packing it, no gun to her head? He had somehow convinced her to come here of her own free will, or the remnants of it.

While he checks in, she stares at the nature scenes painted on the walls in primary colors. Huge windows frame the Pacific Ocean. It’s a place for honeymoons. Their room has a small double bed and a television. He puts their bags on the floor next to the television.

“The beach at sunset is so beautiful,” he says. “C’mon, let’s take a walk.”

The wind howls, blowing her hair in her face. The sand is dingy, defiled. Every once in a while the world comes back into focus. Why can’t she just shake it off like other women do? He didn’t hurt her, he only drugged her and then took advantage of her while she was unconscious. He put one part of his body into hers in a way that did not induce pain. When he saw that she was crying, he stopped. It could have been so much worse. Other women talk about their drunken one night encounters with nothing more dramatic than rolled eyes and resigned sighs. She thinks of all the boys of yesteryear who had tried the same thing, expecting her compliance, outraged at her defiance. They started rumors about her that she could not dispel. She had learned to take precautions: no revealing clothes; no drinking alone with men; no walking on the streets alone after dark. She’d heard about some new drug that rendered you compliant, but didn’t think that a person she saw nearly every day would be bold enough to use it. Maybe it’s also her fault for not being vigilant enough. Or maybe it was bound to happen no matter what.

He stops and takes a deep breath. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

She has seen bleak places before – the Mojave Desert, the flat expanse of Nebraska – and has always been able to find beauty. Through the numbness, she feels a muted pang of regret that this is all she knows of Mexico. She shakes her head. “No. Not really.”

He snaps, “Why do you always have to be so negative?”

Later, in the restaurant, he says, “Order what you want. All of this is my treat.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of benevolence. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

She stares at the menu in bewilderment. She hasn’t eaten in almost two days. She orders enchiladas and wolfs them down as soon as they arrive. The fog in her brain dissipates a little.

He downs a double tequila and orders another. “I think of myself as an optimistic fatalist,” he says in a first date voice tinged with condescension. He swills the ice in his glass. “I used to be a salesman. My hair was falling out and I had stomach ulcers. I’m forty years old and my life is so much better now than when I was your age.” He takes her hand.

She recoils and tears her hand away.

He looks down at his plate. “I know I shouldn’t have done what I did last night, but I’ve never felt so driven. You are so feisty. The way you talk back to me all the time at work. You don’t take any shit from anyone. You’re so different.”

Her stomach churns. He had mistaken her animosity for flirtation. “Please. I don’t want to talk about it.”

He downs his drink and slams the glass on the table. “Fine. I’m just trying to make up for it and do things the right way.”

She flinches and looks down at her plate. She searches for some sign of the feistiness that she used to have. It had, up until now, saved her from this kind of thing. Once, in high school, she had even fought off two football players. You think that little blondes are easy targets, eh? Think again, assholes! But now all she finds within her is silence. Not a calm silence, but the silence of absence, of something extinguished.

Overnight, the wind intensifies to tropical storm level. She curls up on her side of the bed and listens to the howl. He sleeps on his side, turned away, curled up in a dejected ball. The last of the LSD dissipates. The edges of reality harden until they are sharp enough to cut.

She opens her eyes. The wind has died down. He is still asleep, snoring softly. She gets up and walks into the bathroom. Her limbs and lower back ache and her mouth is dry. She turns on the faucet, but no water comes out. She lifts her eyes to the mirror. I look back at her. We look away.

When she walks into the room, the bartender from work is gone. She sits on the bed and runs a comb through her greasy hair.

The door opens. “The storm knocked out the water and electricity,” he says. “The front desk says it will be out all day.”

They pack their things and go down to the dining room. The other couples hunch over their food, disheveled and grouchy. The bartender from work speaks of neutral things like his love for Mexico. All of the things he knows about life that she doesn’t.

“You have serious problems,” he says. “I have a degree in psychology, so I know problems when I see them.”

Defiance reignites. “I’m taking a psych class right now at the junior college. I’m fascinated by Jung’s work on synchronicity and archetypes. The collective unconscious.” She flashes him an innocent smile. Yes, let’s talk about problems.

His face hardens. He empties his drink and pushes back from the table. “Let’s go.”

As they walk towards her car, she says. “Oh no. The passenger side window’s open.”

“We couldn’t get it to close, remember?” he barks. “This car is a piece of shit.”

Small drifts of sand have formed on the seats and floor. They brush off the seats and get in.
She lets him drive so that she can stare out the window and think. The scenery flickers. Yesterday’s film loop played backwards. Once again she’ll have to take refuge in flight. New job, new living arrangements. Just erase it all and disappear. Again. Like a loser. A wave of sorrow washes over her, and she sinks like a stone.

She lifts her eyes to the rear view mirror. I hold her gaze. I won’t abandon you, even if you pull me under. We will go down together. An ember flares up, cauterizing our wounds.


**Update: I’d like to make it clear to life coaches, energy healers, whatevers, etc, that I’m not in need of your services, so don’t bother to contact me if it’s only for the purpose of marketing yourself. It’s obnoxious to browse blogs about abuse looking for clients. I’m healed and have moved on and posted this only to help others.**