June 3, 2016
Almost every Latin American country has dubbed itself "Land of Eternal Spring." You hear it once and you think you've discovered, entirely to your own credit, the perfect spot on the globe where every flower is fuchsia and every day is 70 degrees and every night smells like honeysuckle and lime. You haven't. This is pretty typical fare south of the Rio Grande.
Mexico City in November is pretty similar to Mexico in every other month: foggy, cool, grey-and-sunshined patterned sky. Women wear tights but no sleeves; men wear sweatshirts with shorts. Weather is fickle and sensitive. Just like spring.
"When is spring going to get here?" That's something I hear every April in D.C. when we have yet to experience a complete week of flawless blue skies and pure sunshine and baby bunnies crossing the streets, or whatever scenery would fulfill the artistic ideal of an urban springtime. Instead, it's usually rainy and chilly for a couple months, with a few tender days sprinkled throughout. It's damp patches of grass, and cars that spray you when they drive through puddles, and earthworms, and lingering patches of snow, and t-shirts cloaked in oversized scarves. Spring is fussy and unpredictable, a pimpled teenager ready to snap at any moment, who occasionally shows promise of an elegant young woman.
Mexico isn't one of the countries that dubs itself Land of Eternal Spring, though I think it's more deserving than the others. The City in particular sits on a high altitude where the temperature lingers around 63 degrees year-round and the afternoons are daily hosts to a drizzle that keeps the historic churro cafe packed with customers at 3pm on a Tuesday.
Spring is the promise of a solution to a problem (the problem being winter, which, if you've spent any time in the midwest, you know to be the cause of mental anguish and despair), which is why it's so frustrating when it doesn't deliver. I believe we all kind of secretly expect that, on March 21st of each year, the clouds will part like silver drapes, unveiling a Renaissance painting interpretation of our cities. It's not what we were promised, nor what we've even probably experienced, and yet we feel entitled to it. It is annoying, embarrassingly infuriating, when we were forced to continue slogging through discomfort with no expiration date. Living with an unsolved problem makes us squirmy.
I expected Mexico City to be my spring. Not my earthworm-damp-puddle spring, but my Renaissance, cumulonimbus clouds, lambs sleeping in tulip beds spring. My whole year had been a figurative winter, beginning in the literal one. I wanted Mexico City to be my miraculous, restorative, non-stop inspiring, gorgeous men begging to date me, every food an otherworldly experience, kind of trip. I felt entitled to it.
Some moments were inspiring. A couple men showed interest. A few meals were good; most of them were slathered in mayonnaise--a condiment that instills in me great anxiety.
After the initial heart-slashing, romantic stage of grief where you feel like you're on hallucinogens and everything contains deep meaning and deep sadness, it starts to take the emotional form of a screaming baby on the plane. You can stare it down as long as you please, but it's not going to respond to your scowls. You just have to wait for the screaming to pass, either by distracting yourself or breathing through it.
That's where I was in November, carrying around a screaming baby inside the airplane of my brain. I decided to go to Mexico City for many reasons--not the least of which is my fondness for tacos--but there was an overwhelming expectation that it would heal me. I would return a whole person.
Specifically, I expected to have a spiritual experience at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. Frida Kahlo is, of course, the patron saint for every young woman who fancies herself a heartbroken artist at some point or another. I imagined myself walking through her house, touching the holy linens of her bed and the sacred ceramics of her kitchen. I’d walk through the gardens, sitting to ponder the lessons of heartache and the beauty of completion. In this scenario, my hair would also be a few inches longer.
As I made my way to Casa Azul underneath the buzzing metropolis above, I tried to identify with the metro line. It would take me from my solemn European-flavored neighborhood, through the hullaballoo of the downtown commercial district, under blooming parks and ancient monuments, past the chaotic highways lined with gas stations and junk yards, til the end of the line when I’d emerge into a festive barrio promising divine revelation.
I had the hubris to consider that this underground journey mimicked my recent life journey: My past year had twisted through chaos and silence, the residue of eruptions and the overgrowth of memories, until I was sure to arrive clean and ready in a new place.
This was not the way of the metro. The escalator lifted me from the underground onto a gum-caked sidewalk surrounded by car dealerships. No sign of candy-colored flags overhead, just a mess of telephone wires. No turquoise houses embraced with bougainvillea, but there was a crowded Starbucks and a lonely mall. No smells of homemade tortillas wafting through the air; instead I coughed on exhaust and morning smog. I took out my dog-eared guidebook and tried to make sense of the map to Casa Azul. On paper it all looked so orderly and simple, but I looked out at the six possible arterials shooting away from the metro station, plus a highway that ran across all of them, and sulked. I couldn’t find any street signs and I couldn’t intuit the direction that would lead me to the flags and the turquoise.
It felt like cheating on my fantasy of tortilla scents, but I stepped into Starbucks to gather some wifi to get me on the right track. I would end up doing this four more times over the next hour, until I finally decided to hail a taxi that took me on a 10-minute labyrinthine drive to Frida’s front door. A line of tourists snaked around the blue house. I joined them, sweaty and flustered from the several failed attempts at whimsically stumbling upon the house myself without the help of corporate wifi, a hospital receptionist who pointed me in the opposite direction, a couple passersby on the street whom I pretended to understand because I was too embarrassed to make them repeat mas lento por favor, and a taxi driver who overcharged. I arrived at the house feeling entitled to whimsy.
The magic that I had demanded from this experience--the enchantment of the gardens, the emotional potency of the wheelchair, the power of the linens--fizzled as more and more tourists crammed into each room. I had planned to get there right at opening to have bits of the house all to myself for divine revelation purposes, but getting lost pushed my exact arrival time to the height of the late morning foreigner frenzy.
I was pushed through the house by the crowd, and spit out into the gardens. Ah, the gardens: This is where I had presumed I would return to wholeness, experience my own personal spring. But I took an unclaimed seat on a bench underneath a lemon tree, and I waited, and all I could think about was my residual annoyance over getting so lost and the discomfort of my shoes. And the discomfort of my shoes led me to discomfort of my life.
While my friends were prancing along through happy relationships and fulfilling jobs, I was heartbroken and incomplete. I was desperate for a satisfying narrative that would make sense of everything I had been through in my late 20s, like Elizabeth Gilbert finding love and success after her divorce, or J.K. Rowling finding fame and fortune after writing on paper napkins.
A terrifying thought slipped its way into my monologue: What if there was no point? What if I was just an ordinary person who got a dose of bad luck in a certain period in my life, and there was no special reward at the end--no Brazilian lover, no blockbuster book series--to complete the story? What if it was just a story of a girl who had a really rough year with no universe-orchestrated happy ending, but just a continuation of some bad days and some good days?
I had secretly been waiting for my cosmic reward ever since my dad died. I had a hunch every time I went on a date, every time I applied for a job, every time I sent an essay to a magazine, that this would be my grand finale and I would see that life had a treasure trove in store for me if only I could pass a certain number of tests, like The Book of Job, or a video game. I didn’t articulate it out loud, but I believed it was inevitable. The cosmos had received the large sum I deposited last year, and this year I’d get a hefty return with interest.
Right before the anniversary of Dead Dad Day, I received a rejection letter from the Fulbright Program, declining my dream to live in Portugal for a year and study guitar. I didn’t think I was going to get it; I knew I was going to get it. My friends and a tarot reader agreed: “This is meant for you.” In my application, I wrote poignantly about the only inheritance my father left me: a collection of his guitars and a curiosity about other cultures. I envisioned myself blissful in my new favorite country for a year, just getting to rest among beauty and joy after a dark year.
It would answer the questions that humans couldn’t: Why did I go through a breakup right before my dad died, and why has romance eluded me since? Because you were going to move away for a year, and meet the the love of your life in Portugal. Why did I lose so much of myself last year, including friends who were supposed to be there for me? Because you were going to find the pieces of yourself you lost in the sunshine and by the ocean. Why haven’t I written a book yet? Because Portugal holds all the inspiration you need to fill multiple books, and you’ll have all the time and energy in the world to write it.
When I got the rejection letter, all the belief I’d been clinging onto just slipped away, out of my body and onto the floor for others to step on. It wasn’t that I had just lost an opportunity; I felt like I had just lost the life I wanted, the sense I was seeking. What was the point of me going through all that? was my newest question that humans couldn’t answer.
I wandered around Frida’s garden for a while, watching the waves of tourists swell and break. There were sparse moments of silence after one German high school group would leave and another was still admiring dishware inside. I watched stray cats sniff the flowers and a man sip coffee at the cafe decorated with dancing skeletons, as I waited for inspiration. It didn’t come. What was the point of me coming here? I thought, not exactly sure whether I meant Casa Azul, or Mexico City, or to this place in life.
People are so uncomfortable with the lack of a point to life, that almost every religion and quasi-religion has this belief in a higher plan for each person’s existence. Even friends of mine who eschew religion will instead put their faith in astrology or the universe, attempting to make sense of rejection as something that “wasn’t meant to be,” and paves the way for “something better to take its place.” It’s a somewhat comforting thought, until you get tied up in the logic that surely the universe’s plan has failed plenty of people throughout history. If the universe can’t come up with a plan to feed Syrian refugees, what business do I have in thinking that it has something better for me than a free trip to Portugal?
The morning drizzle turned into midday rain, and I ducked into the skeleton-decorated cafe to wait out the deluge. The Land of Eternal Spring claim eluded Mexico in a literal sense and for my personal purposes as well. I couldn’t find answers at Casa Azul and I didn’t find them in gorgeous men or even tacos, not in the universe or the Fulbright or in Frida’s linens.
I cooled off and enjoyed my midday espresso much more than I enjoyed anything inside the house or in the gardens. I drew in my sketchbook for an hour and watched as the sun swallowed up the rain. The flowers looked like they’d gone through a carwash, but the plants triumphed and looked all the more beautiful for it. I thought about returning to the house and trying to have a moment with the wheelchair, but the coffee break made me hungry. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I could smell the faint waft of homemade tortillas from afar.
I gathered my notebook and my purse, wished the barista a buen dia, and headed back through the house onto the sidewalk, where a new batch of tourists snaked around the bright blue wall. I looked down the street and saw overhead a series of candy-colored flags, flapping in the spring-like afternoon breeze. Tired of trying to make logical of an illogical city, I put away my map and followed the flags instead.