It is an October night in 1992 and, despite the chill in the air outside, I am wearing a sleeveless powder blue velvet top with front darts atop my low slung black jeans. My clothing choice would be vintage and hip in downtown Philadelphia where I routinely roamed four months prior, but here in a discothèque in the heart of central Mexico, the irony is lost and I suspect I even look a bit old-ladyish. Around me, Mexican adolescents dressed in shiny pants, short skirts and high heels shimmy to the disco beat, but I have stopped noticing the teens because I am kissing one with my eyes closed.
His name is Carlos, and he is my 19 year-old student and I have tried to resist him because I am the teacher, but not really. I haven’t been trying to resist him at all; I’ve only told myself so. If I had, I wouldn’t have agreed to come out with him on a Sunday night, when the disco closes earlier than other nights so it seems more innocent. I have brought along my teacher friend, Gussie, to pretend to myself I am not going out with a student, but the ruse is rapidly falling away. Muted squares of light from the disco ball above fall across our faces and Cristian Castro is singing, “Babe, I love you so. And I want you to know. That I’m going to miss your love, the minute you walk out that door.” Then he sings, “Please don’t go. Don’t gooooo. Don’t go away.” And there is a deep sadness to the words already, because I have been asking myself in the cooler days of October why I am still in Mexico. I am a 33-year old coach´s daughter, teaching English a few hours a week for less than minimum wage, and it is something, but not much, so I also ask, not only for how much longer will I stay, but what would be my destination should I leave. And now I am kissing my student and the questions will never be asked in a carefree way again.
But tonight, under the glittering disco ball, shuffling in a small circle on a wooden floor, one arm delicately around Carlos’ shoulder, the other hand clutching the too-long sleeve of his paisley button-down shirt, realizing his lips are so soft because he has almost no facial hair, I am not thinking of my life’s direction or lack thereof. I am just una muchacha besando a un muchacho, not wanting the song or the kiss to end.
In the plain concrete classroom, a wolf whistle broke the deadly calm. My hand, writing with chalk at the blackboard, stopped. I was suddenly conscious of the seat of my jeans hugging my ass. “E-Y” I wrote. “McKinney,” I said, turning around.
Eighteen Mexican teens stared at me.
“Here are some word cards,” I said in English, shuffling the stack so nobody would notice my trembling hands. “You say the English word first, then the Spanish,” I explained. “Let’s do it with a partner.” Nobody moved. Where were the serious eagerly-taking-down-my-every-word students I’d dreamed of? What was with these bored expressions on boys who looked like they’d begun shaving only weeks before? Before class, the director had explained that most students in Mexico only completed grade school. A smaller percentage went to middle school, and if an individual actually finished high school and had some English language skills, life offered many opportunities.
“It is very important that these students learn English,” the director told me sternly.
“Come on,” I chirped. “Try it. Sky. Cielo. Sky.” I turned to write sun on the board and felt the room grow still again. I heard a girl snicker. A manly snort answered her derisive laugh. It was my first day.
If I cried, they’d know I’d never taught before. I lowered the hand that gripped the chalk. I would turn slowly from the blackboard, I told myself, walk out in a dignified manner and never return. I would go back to Philly and bartend.
I smelled chalk dust and heard heels clicking across the floor of the next classroom. I’d seen the other teacher arrive wearing a skirt to her knees, purposely carrying a load of books. I wore Levis and had debated my footwear – motorcycle boots, Doc Martens or leather sandals? The classroom was hot, the air still. I was glad I’d decided on sandals. I took a breath and forced a steely look into my eyes.
“How old are you people anyway?” I said, turning around. The students stopped laughing. I had never run away from difficult situations before. I’d met television, magazine and advertising deadlines. I’d handled twenty bar customers at a time. I knew how to work under pressure. I folded my arms and stood with my legs apart, like my father with his whistle around his neck.
“Cuantos años tienen? We’ll learn this. Everybody say it. How old are you?” I pointed my finger into the nose of a kid with stubby chin hairs.
“Twenty,” I said. I stood with my finger in his face until he mumbled “Twenty.”
Nineteen, sixteen came the answers in Spanish. Eighteen, fifteen, seventeen, twenty-two.
One, two, three I wrote on the board. “O.K.,” I said.
“We’ll begin with numbers.”
After class, boys surrounded my desk. “Maestra, cuantos años tiene Ud.?” asked a pimply kid in Spanish. “How old are you?”
“I’m thirty-three years old,” I replied, mindful of the phrases we’d practiced.
“Where are you from? Are you married? Why aren’t you married? Want to marry me? Don’t you have children?
Vive Ud. sola?”
Now that they were close, I could see I was right—some of these kids were barely out of middle school. I said I lived alone. Boys elbowed each other and raised their eyebrows. “Can I come to your house?”
Where were the eager kids who were grateful to see a genuine English speaker behind the desk? Was I in a classroom being hit on?
The next day after class, a kid who looked to be about sixteen tucked his hands behind the multicolored suspenders attached to his jeans and said in Spanish, “Teacher, can I come to your house and practice speaking English?” To my house? They were no different than the rich guys in the bars—chatting up the American girls because they thought we were easy.
“When you can read an entire page of Shakespeare to me out loud, you can come to my house,” I said. The kid furrowed his eyebrows, snapped his suspenders and left. I was gathering my books into a pile when I noticed that one boy remained, still seated at the second desk in the middle row, watching me.
Carlos. I remembered his name because I’d noticed him. He’d stood back while the other boys fired questions at me. The black sunglasses he’d worn the entire hour were off now.
“Ever taught before?”
Was I that obvious? “No,” I sighed.
Carlos’ thick, midnight-black hair was cut short in the back and on the left side. The rest of his hair fell in a long sheet from his part down to his chin on the right side, like some punk wannabe without tattoos or attitude. “Where do you live?” Carlos asked.
“Over the river and through the woods,” I mumbled.
Carlos was looking at me patiently.
“Sorry,” I sighed.
“They’re just testing you to see if you’re like the vacation girls that arrive here in the summer.”
“What are the vacation girls like?” I asked distractedly, hoisting my stuffed backpack onto my shoulder. I knew the vacation girls – shrieky and loud and hung-over. Out in the bars until three A.M., morally on vacation from the correct behavior they exhibited in their towns the other fifty-one weeks of the year.
“It’s popular to make assumptions about American women, I see.”
“I don’t make assumptions about people I don’t know. It’s just that sometimes that’s true.”
How do you know? I wanted to retort. How many have you picked up? But I didn’t want him to think I cared. We were in the school hall now. Without breaking step, Carlos had slipped my backpack off my shoulder and lifted it onto his. He kept walking. I hurried to catch up. How old did he say he was? I thought back to his answer to the age exercise the day before. Nineteen. He was nineteen years old.
It was the second week and I walked up and down the aisles, feeling teacherly. The students were writing verbs in simple sentences on sheets I’d made up and photocopied since not a single student bought the book I told them to buy. Carlos had almost finished the exercise, I saw, passing his seat, while other kids looked around, clueless. With my finger, I touched a cross of string and black beads he wore at his throat.
“That’s very nice,” I whispered.
“My sister made it,” he said and smiled at me. I smiled, and then feeling foolish, looked up. The class had dwindled to some ten students who showed up regularly. All of them were looking at me.
I moved on, shocked at my own recklessness, holding my hands together to stop them from shaking. I went to the blackboard to hide my face, picked up chalk, couldn’t think of what to write.
Carlos was sitting on the low wall as I left the building. He hopped off and hurried towards me. Removing the cross from his neck in one quick motion, he placed it over my head. My heart raced, my cheeks burned. There were a hundred kids around us. Carlos flashed me a Tom Cruise smile and disappeared.
I walked to the street. Get a grip, I told myself, feeling the ghost of his hands where they had floated past my head and lightly touched my shoulders.
Heads bent over papers, pens busily scratched. The students were writing lists of ten words they would like translated into English.
During the break, I looked at the papers. One girl, who wore neon orange lipstick and yelled across the room to her friends, wrote pintar, then the words for paintbrush, pencil, pastel, charcoal, form, shade, art, haircut, love. I pulled out Carlos’ sheet. Juan Carlos Ortega Moreno. His list read: copper, brass, to sand, to shine, to paint, to play basketball, to score, to rebound, to admire and vieja con bonita figura. Girl with a good figure! How idiotic, how infant! That’s it, I resolved. I’m over my fascination with this pretty boy, because that’s all he is—a boy. Girl with a good figure! Could anything be more immature? I shoved his paper to the bottom of the pile.
Carlos came to my desk after class and told me, “We go dancing at Laberintos on Sunday nights. You should come.”
“No, thank you,” I said primly. “I can’t.” I was the teacher, after all. I felt a flutter of excitement inside and pretended I didn’t.
In my casita, I soaked vegetables in purified water. I made a salad and poured olive oil over it. I looked at the memoir about being the coach’s daughter I’d come to compose, thought of writing a few sentences, didn’t. I drank a cup of tea and went to bed. I touched the black cross; fell asleep with it in my fingers, feeling how it lay at my throat.
Carlos sat in front of me in a pair of overall shorts. The entire room was taken up by his bare legs. All through my childhood, my father’s basketball teams had sat on benches in shorts, legs casually spread, completely owning their space. I’d had a crush on each and every player—men who, like my father, looked as if they owned the world. When I looked up from my verb sheet, I could see nothing but smooth brown skin, strongly muscled calves covered by sparse, manly black hairs! I caught my breath and turned away. I felt like I was spying on him in the shower. Fool, I said to myself.
A week later, Carlos waited in the classroom while the others filed out. “We’re going dancing at Laberintos on Sunday,” he said. “Why don’t you come?”
“Of course not,” I said disdainfully. Who does he think he is, asking out the teacher! Expecting me to go! Then I thought, who’s we? I thought, what a beautiful face. “I can’t. My mother is coming. I’m going to Mexico City right now to pick her up.” I snapped a book shut. Then I continued, against my will. “Do you make things in metal?”
“Boxes, frames, mirrors and stuff.” He laughed. “I’ve worked in my brother-in-law’s brass and tin taller since I was eleven. It’s not like I make the items. I might hammer star patterns into a hundred lamp shades.” I’d seen those workshops on walks through the neighborhoods – unfinished rooms, blow torches, tree stumps for work tables, young guys pounding patterns into sheets of tin with primitive tools. I imagined him bent over with a hammer, concentrated.
“Do you paint?”
“When nobody is looking. I bought a gourd in the market yesterday. That’s the next thing I’m going to paint. I’ve painted on straw mats, scrap wood, my brother’s pants. Yesterday I added the Virgen de Guadalupe and a dozen roses to the leg of his jeans. We’ll see how he makes me pay when he finds out. Ha! Well, gotta go,” Carlos said, and walked to the door. When he turned back, I was still watching him.
I exited the school building. My toothbrush was packed in the overnight bag on my shoulder. As I headed down the hill, toward the bus station, I heard footsteps. Carlos ran after me, his black flag of hair flapping. Reaching me, he held out his hand. I held out mine and Carlos dropped a shiny brass pocket mirror that opened like a book into it. While I gazed at it, he turned and ran back up the hill again. I stuck the mirror in the inside pocket of my vintage blazer, and touched it as the bus rumbled out of San Miguel.