A Letter from Mexico City
by Paulette Jonguitud
Ciudad de México, like many large cities, is a construct: one chooses which neighbourhoods to include in one’s personal map of the city, and one can go years without abandoning that construct, pretending the rest of the city doesn’t exist.
I’ve never been a fan of this city, I must confess. I’ve left many times, but still find myself here. I’ve fought it like I used to fight anxiety, then I realized that I needed to ride it out. Write it out.
What’s your favourite place in the city, Mamá?, asks my daughter. The airport.
Coyotes. I focus on that. The Coyotes Roundabout. We circle it every day to take the kids to school. Or used to, anyway, when there was such a thing as taking the kids to school. The Coyotes Roundabout is a chaotic crossing of two main roads, Universidad and Miguel Angel de Quevedo. It has two statues and a tree; the statues are two black coyotes. In my mind, I see them sniffing each other’s ass. In the middle of the roundabout there’s a dying tree from which politicians hang their ugly faces as electoral propaganda, faces which are never
It’s a famous tree planted by someone who once did something other than planting trees. In my memory, the tree is without leaves but covered in colorful rags, leftover traces of elections past. Siri Hustvedt writes that every time we retrieve a memory we add to it, so I’ve just added obscenity and further defaced an already grisly reminiscence. I’m doing it wrong. I’ve painted an appalling picture of the place where I want to begin teaching my children to love this city. Their city.
Then: it disappeared.
I’m standing in Miguel Angel de Quevedo, one of two eight-lane streets that lead to a roundabout. All I see is cables. Kilometers’ worth of black cable hanging from light-posts, telephone poles, billboards and tree branches. This city wouldn’t be the chasm that it is if it weren’t for the cables that form a net trough through which we all try to look up at the sky, captivated.
comes to rest on the cables for the trolleybuses that at least once every three hours end up stranded in the middle of the road because they’ve lost contact with the parallel overhead lines. I’ve always liked them, so archaic they’ve become modern once again: zero-emissions transport. I’m fond of their green and white carcasses and of the two bulbous plugs from where their antennae sprout. The city moves on, the buses change colors when the Alcalde in turn wants to pretend they’ve updated public transport, but the trolleybuses remain slow and inconvenient, inching their way up Miguel Angel de Quevedo, while cars get smaller around them, trucks convert to electric, girls turn into mothers with miss-behaving daughters. Beached trolebúses part traffic like pebbles in a shallow stream. They look sad, disconnected from their power source, unable to move, and shaking their antennae like beetles on their backs.
From where I’m standing I can see more cables than sky, they go in every direction, they’re a highway of their own, they don’t just stretch in- between posts, there’s seven loops of extra cord neatly rolled hanging idle, just in case one needs an extra eighty meters of black, ugly wire. The loops make me angry. Why leave all that extra cord hanging there, just to annoy us citizens? Too many things here seem intentionally foul. I think of cities where one can see an effort to make the place look jolly, clean, livable. Which cities? Other cities. All of them, in my eyes. There’s probably a good explanation for the hanging loops, I could look it up in my phone. I rather hate them, uneducated. Why did I choose this specific place to begin my love-thy-city project?
Olive’s school is a block from here, that’s what’s brought me to this location today. She’s misbehaved at school, again. She came back home with the worse possible memento: A White Card. Her school sends color-coded cards to let parents know how their parenting skills are lacking. As if I needed reminding. I wear my own bad-parenting card on my chest everywhere I go, it’s called anxiety. We got the White Card for bad conduct and it loomed over our every activity this weekend. We. She did. I put it on my desk and studied that piece of cardboard that signified my daughter’s humiliation and my failing, or so we are expected to believe. It’s just ink and paper but it pulsed in our house for two and a half days, until it returned to school, signed by a parent. She got it Friday, on her last period, and she almost made it home unscathed. The way she tells it is: she was in Rhythm class and a girl was pulling on her friend’s arm to make her sit away from Olive, so Olive took the maracas and shook them in front of the girls face, twice, in frustration. Or so she says. We’ll see what the teacher conveys once I’m properly committed to my chair in the Principal’s office. I thought we were through with this shit, Olive. I thought you’d matured. I thought six years in this planet was enough for you to understand that we don’t shake maracas in front of people’s noses, even if we think we have a good reason to do it. That’s the problem. Her reasoning. She always has a reason to push boundaries. And for the longest time I let her do it for I was afraid to lose her love.
I need people to love me, especially my children. I need people to love my children as well, to recognize my parenting as average. I don’t like to stand out. I want to live in ninja-mode. I dread these situations where it’s clear to everyone that I’ve no idea how to be a mother. The women around me seem to have it all figured out, I spy on them during school pickup: they look so put together, pretty, blown-out hair, polished nails, laser-sharp eyeliner, and children that don’t shake maracas on people’s faces. I want to be them and I do my hair and buy the right handbag and wear earrings but to me it’s a costume and I know that they all know it. I thought we were through with all this, Olive, but I’m standing here, looking at this pollution of wire wondering why the hell I thought this was a good place to launch my we-live-in-wonderland project.
I have time so I stroll up the road, to the corner of Miguel Angel and Paseo del Río, and I see myself walking with my children two years ago, Leo asleep in my arms, Olive complaining about knee pain. It was September 19th, the day of the Earthquake, and I parked the car on the other end of Paseo del Río, near Ciudad Universitaria, almost two kilometers away, because the streets were so crowded we could drive no more. I don’t know why but that day I walked down cobbled Paseo del Río rather than taking the easier route down Insurgentes Avenue. I figured if any buildings had collapsed, the mayhem would be apparent in Insurgentes, not in calm, bourgeoisie, Paseo del Río. I was right, it was empty. We walked under it’s stone bridges, Olive picked dandelions and blew them at Leo’s sleeping face, I walked to this corner, a long and solitary walk away from other people’s pain. For the duration of our
journey together down that trail, there was no Earthquake, no danger of gas tanks exploding, no children trapped under their school’s debris, just me with Leo sleeping, my arms numb, and Olive begging me to sit and rest under a stone arch.
It’s not until I stand here that I realize there are five bookstores around the Coyotes. Five. One of them is right in the corner where I stand. My favorite one. The one I feel most at home in. This is where I walked to the day of the Earthquake. I walked to my past. To a safe place. To a bookstore. That day Claudio asked why I had taken such a long detour to get home. I had no answer. I do now. I spent most my childhood buying books from these five bookstores, I ate lunch with my father across the street, we’d look for records and books in English and he’d meet friends in one of the cafeterias while I read Frank Herbert’s Dune. In prepa, me and my classmates came here looking for Huxley, Orwell and Sontag, thinking we had the world figured out; in University, when I fancied myself a photographer I’d come here to look at Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta books I could never afford to buy. There was a man who sold pirated DVD’s of art films you couldn’t get inside the stores and if he didn’t have what you were looking for, he’d find it and bring it over in a week. This was before the internet, so he sold pure gold, in my eyes. I wonder if he still comes here every night, probably not. Do people still buy DVD’s? Do people still watch movies? A few of my friends have launched their books in one of these five bookstores. I’ve sat and applauded and waited in line for them to sign a copy of themselves dedicated to me. I’ve drunk coffee and wine, here. This is where I took my children on the day of the Earthquake. I took them home.
Ok, then. I’m beginning to get why I chose this place to start.
It starts somewhere near my throat. It’s about the size of a coin. A cold coin. A palpitating coin. It pulses inside my neck and sends waves down to my stomach. I feel that I need to run away, I need to escape this body. To crawl out of the way. I’m trapped. My breath grows short and my eyes widen. I might faint. My vision grows narrow and I fall down the long cylinder of a kaleidoscope that keeps rotating. The ever-shifting lights and colors make it hard to walk. So, I stay put, clawing myself out of myself. Scratching my inner walls with bleeding nails. My body turns mineral, there’s no escaping it. I hit it, from the inside, with my fists. It won’t move. It’s dense and about to faint. Strong and shaking. Let me out. I know this and I fear it. I can feel it coming. It likes transition. It spreads its stench from 6 am to 6:07, when its dark and everyone is asleep, when I make coffee or sit on the toilet. I’m hardly awake and that’s when it hits. It likes having me defenseless, lying down, half asleep, tired. Sometimes it launches into me in the middle of the night, when a car backfires outside and wakes me up, it spreads from my pillow and makes me wet. I’m here. You’re mine. I surrender because there is no point in combat. Now that I’m over forty I understand that I need to ride it out. I learnt that in child labor. It feeds on fear and fighting. It feeds on strength and movement. If I stay still it twitters away. It’s like a contraction. I know it’s coming, I know it’ll hurt beyond comprehension, I know I can ride it out because I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again. It hits when I’m distracted. When I feel trapped. In the theatre when it’s hot and the play somewhat boring. I need to get out of this seat.I can’t breathe. My skin bubbles. Cold runs down my hands. I need to get out of this seat. One, two, three, more than twenty people between me and the aisle. Why did I sit in the middle? The play keeps going, everything continues undisturbed and I’m gonna die in this seat. I won’t but in a very real way I’m dying. And now it’s gone. I don’t know how. I’m not sure if it recedes slowly, like the day, or if it just vanishes when I stop monitoring it. I like to dissect it, when it happens. I like to see if it has moving parts. It sometimes returns with a rage and takes over again, for a second. It takes me by surprise and my legs shake. I loathe myself when I’m in its grasp. It makes me feel dirty and weak and it was the one thing I didn’t want to pass on to Olive. Tough luck. She has it. It’s there in her rages. I can see it waving out at me from behind those gigantic eyes. It’s dark and it knows me. Hey, there. I want to scream. I want to rip it out of her, I want to stick my hand down her throat and pull it out. It’s only a glimpse, a haze in her eyes, just brief enough that I can’t name it. As if I would.
My hands freeze.
When I was pregnant with Olive my hands froze every night. It was hard to sleep, she was such a big baby, her body was so heavy there was no getting comfortable. So, I looked at the ceiling in our blue house, a beautiful ceiling, wood panelled, thick beams. We designed that house from scratch. And then we left it. My hands were cold and heavy. I felt them turn to ice. Sometimes it made me smile, it felt like a super power. I was some kind of X-man. Pregnant X with hands of ice. I knew what it was. Fear is cold and it makes you sweat. But I also found it funny, this new manifestation, almost childish. Except I couldn’t move my hands. It strikes when I’m tired and I can’t defend myself. I’m always tired, now. Fear is a cannibal. It feeds on fear and I have plenty of it. My mother made sure. And somehow, I made sure Olive has plenty as well. I used to hold her to my chest as a baby and I gave her fear by the mouthful, I was so proud to have so much breastmilk and it was thick, liquid, golden fear. I froze bags full of it. I pumped it out of my tits two times a day and she got fat on it. Her face round like the moon. Leo wouldn’t have it. He preferred formula. He only suckled on fear for six months, if that. Smart boy. My worst time is night. I sit in my study and write in a notebook until I’m calm. I know it’ll hit again. It’s stronger when it hits Olive. That’s when I fear it the most. When it’s finally out of me and into the world. Contagion. I feel poisonous. It’s out there and it’s inside Olive’s tiny body. Oh, forgive me, little one! I’ve no idea how this happened to you. It was the one thing that I tried to keep from you and now we must fight it together.
She has her father’s eyes and my anxiety. Isn’t it cute? Isn’t she lovely?
I miss the city. Go figure.