Chapter 2: Becoming “Teacher”
And Chapter 4: Día de Muertos and the Purple Puppy
When you last saw me, I was frolicking with my new puppy in a rural paradise. But then, a most mundane thing happened: the money ran out.
I’d moved to Mexico with a few thousand dollars to my name, which supplemented the $400/semester I made teaching. Yes: only four hundred dollars for four months of work. When my savings hit zero, I became completely dependent on my partner.
Julio was in graduate school, but he always had side projects researching, guiding tours, or – at the end – illustrating a guidebook of local birds. This was one of his life’s dreams: to have his exquisite artwork printed and shared among his birdwatching brethren. When I say this project came at the end, though, it’s because it came too late to stop the chain reaction that changed everything.
After spending half a year in Xico’s idyll, we realized something had to give. There just wasn’t enough money to rent the country cottage and also finance my long commute to work. Upon doing the math, it became blindingly clear that teaching wasn’t even paying for the gas I used to get to town. It was easy to give up my job, given how enamored I was of life among the coffee bushes and banana trees. I planned to investigate a lead I’d found for work as a translator, and life forged on.
I’ll make the most unpleasant part of this story brief: I interviewed for that position, was given a mountain of files to translate, and did so over the course of a few months. They kept saying the first check was coming, but I never got paid. There was nothing to be done – I was working illegally. At the same time, the print date on Julio’s book was moved back, along with his check for the finished project. Facing sudden poverty, we moved in a panic from our cherished home to the cheapest unit available in a new housing project called Miradores, which translates literally to “Viewpoints.” The view from the bedroom window, however, was of a trash-littered street, a stone wall, and a cluster of unkempt weeds.
We continued to love and live well, for a time. I hung art until the inside of the tiny house was a gallery of rainbows, and daydreamed over sketches of the improvements to come. I thought longingly of the day when magenta bougainvillea would tumble over the slats of my own personal white picket fence. And I was good at surviving on those dreams… for a while.
In the end, it wasn’t money trouble that sent me from Mexico. Yes, I hated having to borrow change from Julio’s mother so we could have a once-a-month movie date, but in between we cooked, played guitar, and walked Adi in endless loops while we talked. I was content as long as Julio was there. But when he wasn’t, Miradores became a ghost town. It was such a new community that many buildings were still unfinished and sat empty and indecent, with no doors or window panes. The main road from the highway wasn’t finished either, and we didn’t get visitors anymore.
During the week, Julio attended classes. His school was so far away that he was always gone until dinner. Since my university had hired back their original English teacher, I floated aimlessly around the deserted streets like a white ghost with a fuzzy dog companion. Adi and I played listless games of fetch until my shoulder grew sore from repetition.
I began a daily habit of eating lunch at the informal restaurant in the neighborhood. It was run on the patio of an elderly woman’s house, and most days I waited until the construction workers cleared out, then sat with a book and ate in silence. The comida corrida – several simple courses at a fixed price – was so cheap that I could justify it. Even though I couldn’t interest the shy young waitresses in conversation, the meal let me escape the monotony of my house.
After a few weeks in which I ate soup and rice, fish and beef, gelatin and cookies, the matron herself came out of the kitchen to greet me. Mija, she said softly, No te ofendes, pero te ves tan triste que me das ganas de llorar.
Sweetheart, don’t be offended, but you look so sad that you make me want to cry.
And there it was. When a perfect stranger could see my emptiness, it was time for change. Julio had his dream of graduate school, and he was chained to it for at least two more years. Meanwhile I was just waiting, unable to find work and wasting time with distractions that had grown less than halfhearted. I needed my own dreams, not just of a person or a place, but of a future for myself.
I called my mother. I cried my heart out, and felt her desperate sympathy from a thousand miles away: “Come home Jenn. You can always come home.” I told Julio I needed more, that I planned to go to school again myself, in Carolina del Norte. We spent many sleepless nights together, achingly full of bittersweet sentiments, knowing something beautiful was coming to an end. I packed my things. I said my goodbyes. I told my friends this absence wouldn’t last forever, but I really had no idea.
Eventually, the day of my departure came. It was arbitrary – there was nothing specific I was heading to, just as there was nothing I was running from. I simply had to start moving again. Julio held me, hard, and whispered, No te vayas – “Don’t go,” – over and over. He was so exquisite, my second-generation poet/musician/anarchist, and I loved him so damn much.
As I disentangled myself from his arms and loaded Adi into the car, my heart shattered into a million sparking pieces. I sprinkled those reflective bits of myself like fairy tale crumbs along the roadsides as I drove endless hours back to my parent’s house. In my fog of tears, I thought I might someday follow those crumbs back to Julio, or at least to Mexico. But it’s been over five years now, and I never, ever have.