“You’re pretty low maintenance, as women go.”
“I am, am I?” She sounded amused.
“Yeah. Like a cactus.”
― Roxanne Snopek
I did not want to go on the trip. My beloved father had just died and my grieving encompassed all of my spare time. I cried often and could not get past the fact I would no longer be calling him on my drive home from work every night. Acres of time seemed to loom before me and I wanted to speak to no one.
Where I worked, there was a sister cities trip planned between the cities of Irvine, California and Hermosillo, Mexico. I had signed up for it months before the trip because it was affordable and I love Mexico. About a week before the trip, I told the coordinator I was not going, I was just too sad. Eventually, she counseled me that the trip would be good therapy. So…I went.
Remember the film, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles?” That is how we got to our destination. After the sister city formalities in Hermosillo, our ultimate destination was a 16th-century Spaniard-founded town at the southernmost tip of Sonora, Mexico. How we traveled and what happened there is my story.
We flew from Orange County, California to Tucson, Arizona for the border crossing into Mexico by bus. Along the way we stopped at the first of many very old missions we would visit along the way. We were following the path of Padre Kino who founded most of these missions in Mexico. He journeyed from Spain, his mission to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism.
One of our first stops was the San Xavier Mission, founded in 1692. In a small gift shop next to all missions, milagros (miracles)–tiny metal coins with various images on them–are sold to pin on a saint’s robe in the mission and pray for various ailments or wishes. I pinned one with a heart image for my father.
After the mission, we were back on the bus to go through customs to cross the border into Mexico, about 30 miles south of Tucson. Make that Planes, Buses, and Automobiles. I noticed that the average age of my fellow tripsters was around 70-75 years old. Which was cool. It was like being with many kind grandparents. We also had two Mexican tour guides, Juan and Jorge. Jorge had a devilish sense of humor and understood my Spanglish. I sat behind the driver and guide because I was perpetually motion sick and we became close travel buddies.
The first stop after we crossed the border was a restaurant for lunch with delicious local food. Growing up in Arizona, I’m very partial to Sonoran-style Mexican food. Please don’t judge me on this next part–even though I deserve it. Coping with the pain of hospice and my Dad, I had occasionally bummed cigarettes from my nephew. Not a habit. Just a thing. I had the remains of a pack with me and I snuck out to the side of the restaurant to imbibe in this unhealthy indulgence. Standing there was a man, about my age, and I don’t mind saying, kind of attractive in a suit kind of way. Or maybe I was just used to my geriatric bus mates and happy to see someone young. We struck up a conversation and finally got around to:
“What are you doing here?” I’m thinking it’s rather odd a white man in a business suit is here.
“I just flew in to go on a tour.”
“Really? I’m here on a tour, too. Where are you going?”
“How funny. So am I.”
We then chatted about where we lived, what we did for work, our families. He was single. How fortuitous. Further, he was an immigration attorney. Now, on it’s own, this is not especially newsworthy. But it happened that I was dating someone from Denmark who was looking for an immigration attorney. I began to think, hmmm. Quite a few coincidences here.
We both live in Orange County.
He’s an immigration attorney.
Lars needs an immigration attorney.
At that point, I threw away the rest of the cigarettes and walked back into the restaurant with my new friend John. One more REALLY big coincidence. We both walked to the same table. We just kind of looked at each other like….no, there must be some mistake. No mistake. There we sat.
Happy to report, I had a new bus seat partner on our drive down south to Hermosillo. There is truly nothing as satisfying as having a lively, intellectual conversation and good, belly laughs with a really great guy. Even more so when everyone else in the vicinity could be our parents. Of course, being the way I am, I did much leaning in, hand on arm, hand on leg–I am flirt incorrigible.
We made several stops along the way. One was to a burial site that was rumored to be where Padre Kino was laid to rest. It could have been folklore as there was no physical proof. The site was a roundish, small adobe building with viewing windows to see what appeared to me to be just dirt. Let me back up and add that our bus operator and tour guide, Juan and Jorge, had a wicked sense of humor. I only understood half of what they said, but often it was very funny.
I walked up to the glass window and put my hands around my face so I could see inside a little better from the glare. I turned to my new best friend, John, and asked him how one would know if Padre Kino was really buried there.
Over a loudspeaker came this spooky, low voice that said, “Es un secreto.”
I jumped so high and then giggled. I knew enough Spanish to understand, “It’s a secret” and I realized it was Jorge playing a trick on me. It quickly became a favorite pastime of his.
He got his chance again at the next stop. Mexico is a beautiful country, culturally rich, with interesting, friendly people. But every so often you are reminded this is a third world country governed very differently than the United States. This was not a planned stop. We were detained by Federales in the middle of nowhere by guards armed with assault rifles dressed in camouflage. They ordered the driver to take random pieces of luggage out from under the bus and put them on tables set up in a row. They opened the suitcases, rifled through the contents, talked among themselves, and eventually, the suitcases were returned. I was scared shitless, but Jorge told me they are often looking for prescription drugs. Viagra, he told me, fetches a very high price. Of course, I believed him. Jorge 2. Dori 0.
We finally arrived in Hermosillo where we were wined and dined by the mayor and many local dignitaries and officials. It was a very formal occasion, although I was so tired from the trip, I could barely keep up with my flirting banter with John. That, Dear Reader, is tired.
The next morning we set off for a day of travel to our next destination which was the small, town at the tip of the state of Sonora. I continued my flirtfest with John, whose stories of his immigration clients were funny and fascinating. I just knew he was going to be the perfect attorney for Lars. And perhaps a little something for me.
After what seemed like the longest bus ride in modern times we arrived in Alamos, Sonora. Built by Spaniards, it was a lovely mix of old and new on a hillside with red cobble-stoned streets. The architecture was charming and delightful. Interestingly, the town had recently been discovered by American developers and a five-star resort was newly built adjacent to the town. We had a sumptuous gourmet dinner there one night, and after seeing their lavish guest rooms, I knew this is where I was really supposed to be staying.
As we spent time at the various places in Alamos, I would write on walls, “Jorge wants a girlfriend” in Spanish with the tour phone number as payback for his many tricks.¿Quién sabe? Maybe I found a bride for Jorge.
A few days later, John and I went back to the resort for a massage. Somehow, they assumed we wanted a couples massage, and left us alone in a room with two tables and sheets for us to use after disrobing. We had spent a lot of time together, but we were by no means intimate. This will go down as most embarrassing, oh yes.
We politely decided to each turn our backs. But, wait. We were naked on two tables just feet apart getting massages. Second most embarrassing. Never have I ever been less relaxed during a massage. But we pulled it off. How does one do intimate things with someone one is not intimate with? My sweet Lord. Not easily.
It was a trip of wondrous adventures and every day brought something new. While we there, it was October 31–Dia de los Muertos–Day of the Dead which is a much-celebrated feast day in Mexico. Years later, it would become a somber reminder of my time with John. We walked in a parade up a hill to the to the cemetery where graves were decorated with flowers, balloons, trinkets, photos of the departed, and yes, milagros.
At the cemetery, families would gather around their deceased’s above ground headstones and prepare intricate feasts among the festive decorations. Mariachi music filled the air. It was a day to remember and celebrate the dead. I found one headstone off by itself, with no revelers, and John helped me place a few flowers and stones in memory of my father. He would have loved the celebration.
John and I danced around each other throughout the trip. Holding hands, a few stolen kisses, and visiting each other’s rooms. I suppose there was some intimacy in our long talks on the bus. But neither one of us was willing to take it to the next level. Every night, we gathered in the hotel bar and drank Coronas until we became quite stupid. I do remember some drunken groping–but I’m not sure if this counts as anything other than drunken groping.
At the time of the trip, I was dating, although not exclusively, Lars.
I had a feeling John was in the same situation with someone as well. We would become close and then step back. Get closer, then step back. The best we could do, really, was a vacay fling and somehow what we were doing was more exciting, more sensual, and ultimately, more meaningful.
The promise of what could be, but we chose not to be.
It was certainly remarkable restraint on my part. I have to tell you there were some heated moments that were quite entertaining to the other tour members who were probably thinking, for chrissakes, just do it. But we didn’t.
When we came home, we had a few dinner dates and I introduced him to Lars who hired him on the spot. A few months later, Lars later asked me to marry him. And there it was. Life back to normal in post-Mexico times.
I wish I could tell you we all lived happily ever after. But this is what happened next. John helped Lars get his visa, and a few years after this, John helped Lars became a proud U.S. citizen. The ceremony announcer named all the countries represented that day and Lars was the sole defector from Denmark. There were so many new citizens sworn in Southern California, it had to be held at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. We must have taken 50 photos that day of Lars holding his citizenship papers and waving an American flag.
It was a joyous time.
I have learned to not take life for granted, and it was Lars who taught me this because he is an AIDS survivor. He lives every day as if it were the most special day of his life. We could never have guessed we were not to see John again and his special days were to become finite.
Less than a year later, ten years to the day after we celebrated Dia de Los Muertos in Alamos together, John was killed by a speeding driver on Halloween. Our mutual friend Valerie called and told me. Extremely upset and in shock, I immediately called Lars.
“Impossible,” he said, it must be someone else with the same name.
“No,” I sadly told him. “It was not.”
From a special trip in Mexico to a close friendship with both Lars and me, a man who changed the trajectory of both of our lives–in one very wrong moment John was gone. My sweet romance. Lars’ trusted attorney and friend.
I have many photos of us in Mexico but my favorite is one of us out at dinner after we came back staring at each other smiling as if we both shared the same secret. And we did.
Every Dia de los Muertos I think of you, John, and place a small piece of my heart on your grave.