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.