A couple of weeks ago, I stood on Pilitas Street in Puerto Vallarta and gazed heavenward at a full moon, gleaming in the night sky like a porcelain dinner plate. I wanted to reach up and pluck it from the sky – one last souvenir of Mexico -- pack it in my suitcase for the long drive back to the US, then pull it out and stick-pin it to the wall of whatever cubicle or listless reality awaited me back home.
I so loved my Puerto Vallarta script. In it, I was Shirley Valentine, dressed in rumpled linen, sauntering around Zona Romantica to my various appointments, soaking up the Bohemian life, savoring the quirky irony of being the sole heterosexual female in a neighborhood populated almost exclusively by gay men.
On Saturday mornings, I made my way down Olas Altas, over to the Rio Quale bridge, past the marimba players at the Puente del Fuente Restaurant and up the stairs to PV Writers Group meetings, where I read from my book-in-progress to an invariably receptive audience. Later, I’d drop by to chew the fat with Ray of Ray’s Bazaar or hike up the steep hill to my friend Ricardo's villa to let him ply me with espresso and hearty meals served on his immense farm table.
I developed fast friendships with local Mexicans and hung out with Israel in working-class Pitillal, far from the tourists and timeshare salesmen lurking on the Malecon. Occasionally, I’d meet my friends Martha and Xochitl at the Cheeky Monkey to drink $1.00 Margaritas as the sun set on the bay.
They liked me, they really liked me -- to paraphrase Sally Field’s infamous Oscar acceptance speech. The place felt enchanted, like I’d finally come home.
But it’s always like that when an experience is new, before it dawns on you that people are not larger-than-life supporting players in a movie starring you. Before you realize that people have their own scripts. Before things happen that put a stick through the scrim of your romantic constructs, tearing a big, jagged hole in the way you thought things were. Or were supposed to be.
Like so many people in Vallarta, I juggled numerous money-making schemes -- from selling my photo notecards at Gloria's hotel to designing necklaces for the diminutive pooches favored by homosexual men. "And your little dog, too -- bling for the tiny dog in your life." But nothing really caught fire. My business, Palabras Magicas Marketing, quickly ran out of steam when the tourist industry continued its slow decline and nobody wanted to pay for my services. I could feel the meter quickly running out on my Vallarta adventure.
Shortly before I left PV, Israel introduced me to his friend Jaime. A quiet man who lived in an unwired hut in the jungle above Nogalito, Jaimie showed up from time to time to sit in my kitchen and talk about mystery, philosophy and his mission to feed the fourteen dogs and cats in his charge. He reminded me of a Mexican Saint Francis of Assisi.
It was not clear to me how Jaime made a living. He and Israel once tried to start a fix-it and appliance repair business, but their loopy attitudes toward time doomed their partnership from the get-go. Whenever their individual orbits managed to intersect, all they did was argue over which of them showed up too late or too early for a pre-arranged business meeting. It was laughable to watch them bumble through their plan to get rich doing odd jobs for gringo condo owners, when neither of them had a working cell phone, or even a watch between them.
One day as I was cooking dinner for all of us, Jaime picked up my guitar and started to play an impromptu concert. I watched slack-jawed as he finger-picked one song after another -- “Lara’s Theme,” “Spanish Eyes,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and Beatles songs, my favorite. Between sets, he caressed the seasoned flat-top, turning it over in his hands before his fingers found the strings again, the music pouring out of him like water from a broken main.
Jaime raved about my guitar – a Yamaha FG-160 I’d owned since 1973, purchased when I was a freshman in college. It occurred to me that I should give him the guitar, which I hadn’t played seriously for years. Perhaps he could use it to make tips on the street, or find himself a gig at a local restaurant.
I thought long and hard about releasing the instrument I’d owned for almost 40 years. The more I mulled it over, the more it seemed like the right thing to do. The day I handed the guitar over to him, I said, “Jaime, please promise me you won’t sell this guitar for a few pesos the next time you are desperate for dog food…” And he promised me, “No, no…this is very special. I will keep it forever.” No one had ever given him anything so fine. I saw him again on the street days later. He grabbed my hand, thanking me again, and promised, “I will never forget you.” An apparition of Roberta the Superhero elbowed out of my subconscious, standing with arms crossed and nodding, jut-jawed: yes, my work here is done. I am indeed a good person.
That was a few weeks ago. Yesterday, Israel called me from Mexico. “Jaime sold your guitar for 1,000 pesos,” he announced before the phone went dead. He must have purchased just enough cell phone time to call me with the news. My stomach did a slow somersault and I heard myself groan at the mental image of my wonderful old guitar propped up in a pawnshop window. I’d been suckered by my own bleeding-heart need to save someone who didn’t want to be saved.
Aside from reminding myself once more that what people do with the gifts we give is their own business, I am also again confronted with the issue of expectations. Specifically, disappointed ones.
I went to Mexico with high hopes. That people would recognize my abilities and want to hire me. That those I had been generous to would be generous and honest in return. That friendship would always be reciprocated. Most especially, that no one would try to pull the wool over my eyes – eyes that often fail to see that people choose their own lives. I can’t save them. Only God can do that – and even He/She has to bitch-slap them to get their attention.
But so as not to become beady-eyed and cynical about people’s motives, I try to focus on the many friends and strangers who have been kind to me with no expectation of return; volleys of grace unleashed upon me more times than I can count. And then there's the matter of my own relationship gaffes and moral failures. If I'm going to be intellectually honest, I can't ignore the things I’ve done that let people down. As I add it all up, my conclusion is that I need mercy considerably more than I require justice.
And the moon, I’ve decided, shines no brighter in Puerto Vallarta than anywhere else. It also wanes there, making for nights every bit as lonely as my night spent in a sleeze-bucket, no-tell motel in Lordsburg, New Mexico, the day I crossed the border back into the US.
Where ever you go, there you are. We carry our Heavens, our Hells and our Purgatories within us, right next to our psychic souvenirs. Puerto Vallarta, I’ve decided, is just a state of mind. Heaven draws near when we forgive the people who hurt us, and choose to love them despite the myriad ways they stick knives in our hearts. Just like I have to forgive Jaime. And just like I hope the people I’ve disappointed will find their way to forgiving me.