We had friends we could invite for coffee, we had favorite taquerías. We’d found a home.”
The purple-and-silver Trincheras bus splashed through shiny puddles, hurtling too fast down the long hill into town under a misty-blue sky. The seat felt damp through my shirt and smelled faintly of mold: familiar, commonplace, as if all were as it should be. The moist earthy scent of the rainy season beginning—my third rainy season in Morelia—cheered me a little. But I was finding it hard to breathe. The lightest touch of pain or pleasure made tears start up behind my eyes: a too-skinny street dog dragging a package of rotting pork rind out of the gutter, a flash of magenta bougainvillea along a brick wall, a small child pointing her greasy finger at me and smiling.
In a week my husband and I would be leaving this life we had carved out for ourselves in Mexico. Thinking that hard fact made my knees weak.
We’d had goodbye parties, we’d walked our neighborhood saying goodbye to shopkeepers and neighbors and the woman who made tortillas; we’d had a big yard sale and sold all the household goods we’d collected over three years. Now Peter was out of town for a few days, on business, so I had a last chance to be alone with my city. In three challenging years we had found work, learned the language, known births and deaths and baptisms and quinceañeras. We’d celebrated Noche de Muertos, Navidad, Semana Santa, Independencia, the founding of Morelia, the birthdays of Jose Maria Morelos and Benito Juarez, Nationalization of Petroleum Day, innumerable Saint Days. We’d committed social blunders and lost ourselves on sketchy back roads and spent days huddled in our apartment afraid to go out and be confused. And slowly we had become residents and neighbors as we walked the streets and rode the buses of the city. We had friends we could invite for coffee, we had favorite taquerías. We’d found a home. But the realities of time and money and aging parents were forcing us to go—that was all. Peter was excited to get back to the States, start a new job, rejoin our old friends. I was bereft, not only for the simple fact of going, but for all the beginnings we would have to end. As though I were having an affair, I had my own relationship with the city, separate from Peter; Mexico had taken hold of me in a way it not taken hold of him. I needed to find my own way, just me alone, to say goodbye to this place.
* * *
When the bus reached downtown I hopped off at the Plaza Central. Pigeons picked at scattered crumbs and old men in white hats napped on iron benches.
I paused on the broad Avenida Madero at the edge of the Plaza, letting myself simply exist in the midst of the traffic and noise of El Centro. Three years before, I had been overwhelmed by it all, unable to sort out which grand colonial stone building housed the bank, which hid the wall murals of Michoacán, which held the Post Office. I was mute then, without the language to connect to the people inside.
Now as I passed the line of combis—VW buses in colorful stripes, Naranja, Rosa, Güinda, Azul, Oro y Verde—I knew where each one was going, waved to the drivers. Beyond the combi line were the tall trees of the Plaza del Conservatorio, where Peter and I had sat with our first cappuccinos in Morelia, struggling to decipher classified ads for a place to rent.
The great cathedral towers rose over the avenue as I slipped among groups of gentlemen breakfasting under the stone arches that shaded the sidewalk. Aromas of chilaquiles and coffee tempted me, but I wasn’t ready to stop. Too many people for my private leave-taking. I didn’t know where I would find it, but I knew it was here somewhere: the right ending.
I bought El Sol de Morelia, the daily paper, from the vendor at the corner.
“¿Y donde está su esposo hoy?” he asked.
“My husband went to the capital on business,” I said. So easy for me now to respond in Spanish, to chat casually with anyone I met. “He’ll be back tomorrow.”
“¡Uuf, mucho trafico!” He gestured his disgust with Mexico City.
I made my way along Madero, past the onyx-floored bank where I used to strain to understand the teller when I cashed my paychecks from the university. I’d come away from those interactions with money in my hand, but almost tearful at the difficulty of communicating. Now I could return her cheerful banter about my tiny paycheck. In the market I joked with the street vendors and shopkeepers as I chose small gifts to take back to the US: T-shirts with the red and yellow soccer team logo for my nieces, striped rebozos, woven plastic market bags.
A few blocks farther I passed the paletas shop where I used to escape for the cool relief of a sweet-sour lime popsicle after my sweaty English class of cranky ten-year-olds. The metal shutters still down—too early for paletas. At the far end of Madero, I meandered through the flower gardens and silvery fountain spray of Plaza Villalonquín. I sat on a dark green wrought iron bench near the shoe-shine man, and turned my face up to catch the sun. Before his business trips, Peter would come here to sit in the high red wooden chair and pay a few pesos for a shoeshine while I sat on a bench and wrote in my journal. The shoeshine man gestured an invitation, but I pointed at my sandals and he laughed and waved me on.
I had reached the end of downtown. And I hadn’t found what I was searching for. Now what?
I didn’t know where I would find it, but I knew it was here somewhere: the right ending.”
He looked like an old-time apothecary; someone who could mix up whatever potion you might need, to cure any ailment.”
A long straight street ran from the Plaza toward the rambling city park called ElBosque, The Forest. The buff stone arches of the Aqueduct, freshened and blushing pink from the rain, stood graceful watch over the park. Gazing past the arches at the greenery beyond, I remembered the famous fruit gazpachos everyone talked about. For three years I’d heard people arguing over their favorite vendors: the one near the combi stop east of the Mercado de Dulces; the old man across from the church of La Merced; the guy in the Zόcalo on the Madero side. But most morelianos agreed that the gazpachos of Morelia had first appeared in El Bosque, many years ago, and that the vendor who started the whole craze was still there. Only at his very stall would you find the most authentic gazpachos, the originals. Somehow, as often as we had walked the streets of the city, as many gazpachos as we’d tasted, we had never gone looking for him. Now I had only a few more hours. Maybe I could find him.
I crossed Madero into the park and strolled through its shades and textures of rainy season green: dark and shiny, soft and feathery, slick and spiky. The air under the trees felt cool, humid, full of promise, drawing me further in. Under a grove of tall eucalyptus near the duck pond stood a puesto, a humble stall built of rough wooden sticks and covered with sheets of clear plastic. A hand-painted sign said Gazpachos.
The vendor was a sturdy middle-aged man—hair turning silvery, like mine—in a white shirt and a light brown wool vest. He wore the classic tight-woven white straw hat with a thin dark strap under his chin and a saucy tassel of white thread dangling from the back of the brim. With his glass jars and plastic tubs of ingredients arrayed on shelves and counter, he looked like an old-time apothecary; someone who could mix up whatever potion you might need, to cure any ailment. I would offer up to him my sadness.
There were no other customers around; the park was quiet. I breathed in the fresh resiny scent of the eucalyptus. The vendor nodded to me.
I stepped up and said, “Buenos días.” You do not begin an important interaction like buying a breakfast without the proper greetings.
“¿Buenos días, señora. Como está usted?” The familiar ritual.
“Muy bien, señor. Y usted?”
“Bien, gracias. ¡Que día tan lindo!”
“Yes,” I said, “it is a beautiful morning.” The Spanish rolled off my tongue now, free and easy.
“A su servicio, señora.” We were speaking lines well-grooved into both of our habits; his for a lifetime, mine for only three years. But three years are enough for words to become routine, a memorized poetry of custom.
I ordered a gazpacho with everything: “Un gazpacho, por favor. Con todo.”
“Muy bien.” He nodded approval.
He placed a large plastic cup on the counter and lined it with a cone of paper. His movements were slow, leisurely. No sense of urgency, but the focus and clarity of a priest at an important rite. He brandished a huge cleaver in a strong brown hand that matched the warm color of his wooden chopping block. His other hand hovered over a blue plastic bucket loaded with fruit.
“¿A ustéd le gusta mango?” he asked.
“Pues, sí, gracias,” I said, “lo quisiera con todo.” Now I was off-script. Had he not heard me say, “With everything”? Of course, mango.
He fine-chopped the silky mango into golden pebble-sized morsels and dropped a half-cup or so into my paper cone. He poised the cleaver over the chopping block—three inches thick and worn into a curved dish in the center by years of gazpachos.
“¿Piña?” he asked, lifting a juicy pineapple end by the spiky green leaves.
“Sí,” I insisted, “y jicama, por favor. Con todo.” He whacked a chunk off the pineapple, reducing it to tiny bits, and slid them in with the mango. He flayed the jicama’s thin brown skin with six elegant strokes, diced the crisp white meat, added it to the yellow and orange fruit. My eyes followed his hands.
“¿Are you the famous gazpacho-maker of El Bosque that everyone talks about?” I asked.
“Claro que sí,” he said, taking an orange and two limes from another tub. He paused to examine the fruit in his hand. Serious. “Soy el primero.” He sliced each globe in half, revealing the brilliant green and orange insides. With motions too quick to follow, he whisked half a lime into his aluminum squeezer and splashed the bright juice over the waiting fruit. Another lime, then the orange. How many times had he made each of these moves? From a yellow plastic squeeze-bottle he added just a dash of fresh water. “Agua purificada,” he promised, and winked.
When he’d placed the water back on the shelf, he continued. “I invented the gazpachos of Morelia. All the others are my apprentices.” He waved the cleaver through the air to indicate unseen gazpacho makers all over the city. “Shall I put in chili?”
“Yes, of course,” I insisted. “Everything.” I could feel a smile spreading into my cheeks.
“Salt?” He looked at me, creases playing at the corners of his eyes.
I shrugged and raised my eyebrows, as if to say, “What do you think? I said everything.” But I liked answering his questions, in truth. He had made me a partner in his recipe; we shared the lovely morning in a casual exchange of words.
He shook a generous dose of rough, big-crystaled salt from an aluminum screw-top shaker. He threw in a heaping spoonful of red-brown powdered chili from a plastic jar. The dark powder floated onto my fruit mix, settling on the mound of gold.
“¿How long have you been here in the Bosque? Ten years?”
“Uuuf,” he waved his right arm to dismiss the past. “¡No, muchos! So many years! ¿And how long have you been in Morelia?”
“Only three years.”
“Ah, muy poco tiempo.”
Yes, I thought, very little time, too little time. Don’t tell me how little time.
“¿Queso?” he asked.
“Seguro que sí, señor.”
Straight-faced, he sprinkled the dry white crumbly salty cheese over the top of his creation, which now threatened to spill out of the cup onto the countertop, into the sparse grass of the park. I breathed through my nose, inviting everything into my lungs, into my blood: the eucalyptus, the chili, the mango, the vendor. I knew his claim to be the first gazpacho man might or might not be true, and I knew, only after living in Mexico, that it didn’t matter. What mattered was the story, the conversation, the human connection.
“I came here to the city from far away, from Zitácuaro,” he told me, “many years ago. I was a young man. I had to look for work—Zitácuaro was no more than a village then. And I began selling gazpachos, here in the Bosque, with my brother. We were very popular. Then others began selling them too. And now, here I am, still.” He handed me my paper-lined cup and a little plastic spoon.
I held the cup in my hand, admiring the colors and textures.
“It is a work of art,” he said.
“Sí, es una obra de arte.”
I bowed my head in deference to the sculptor.
“Were you sad to leave Zitácuaro? Do you miss your home?” I asked. I thought of the glory of the butterflies in the pine-shouldered mountains that border that city, their black and orange wings filling the skies.
“It was a long time ago… uno se acostumbra.” One gets used to it.
“Yes,” I agreed, though I could not imagine getting used to it. I paid him and thanked him, for the breakfast and the conversation and the recipe.
“Por nada, señora,” he said. “Hasta la proxima.” Until next time. Another part of the ritual.
But this early rainy season, when everything was turning wildly green, would be my last here. Why such pain over such a small thing? Just leaving a place that had grabbed hold of my heart. I didn’t want to say out loud that I would never see the vendor or his masterpieces again. I said the heavy words back to him: “Sí señor, hasta la proxima.” Because this is what you say.
What mattered was the story, the conversation, the human connection.”
In Mexico we say you must not be sad for what you are leaving behind.”
The first time I went to Mexico, a decade before, I was in the country only three weeks. When I told a Mexican friend I was so sad to leave, she said, “In Mexico we say you must not be sad for what you are leaving behind. You must be glad that you love it so much. That is what’s important.”
I tried to be glad, and found that I was.
I walked to a concrete bench beside the duck pond and sat to eat my breakfast. Big white and black ducks and some ungainly fluffy ducklings splashed about. Children and their mothers threw them bits of bread. The Bosque was vivid green with pale blue sky sitting low among the trees, tranquil in the midmorning. The park was waking up, and I shared the peace of the morning with the ducks and ducklings, mothers and children, a gardener picking up trash, whispering schoolgirls in white and maroon uniforms. Two balloon vendors moved along the path, the shimmery globos bobbing above their heads.
I ate carefully, tasting all of each spoonful, letting the mingled flavors roll over my tongue.
Slowly, slowly, I spooned out the last few drops, savoring the end. Fruit and salt, crunch and silk, sweetness and bite.