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JANUARY 1985. THERE IS NO AIRPORT directly serving San Miguel de Allende. Boarding a midafternoon bus from Mexico City's north terminal, I watch the clotted capital become desolate factory outskirts, then dissolve into cultivated swaths of agave cactus, sorghum, bean. The air softens. Musica estereofonica raises sweet laments. A Virgin of Guadalupe pendant sways from the driver's mirror between decals of Che Guevara and Rambo. A tossing reverie must have become sleep, for when I next look out the shadows are long, the hills closing in. Along the roadside, farmworkers materialize out of the air, then recede back into dusky earth. Little roadside shrines whiz by, candles lit within. Old stone walls run to nowhere. Clusters of black birds wheel, then swerve toward the horizon like iron filings to a magnet. I look over at Masako, her head pressed to the window.
A sudden sharp descent causes me to grip my seat. A dying sun sets ablaze a little town nestled on a hillside. We debark in a dusty clearing among stray dogs. A half dozen scruffy kids vie to carry our luggage; I wave them off. A taxi driver in a clean white shirt offers to take us into town. Anxiously I counter his figure by half; nobody's going to rip me off. Shrugging, he agrees, as if to say: If it's that important to you.
We step through a canopy of bougainvillea into a cool, flower-flooded patio. I enter a hotel office where earlier I'd called to ask, "Do you have a room?" and been answered with "Maybe." I'd bridled at the insouciance, with its echoes of being put on hold; but as our luggage slumps onto a tile floor in a high stucco room overlooking a shady garden, I ease, forgive.
We walk through a dimly lit town of roseate Moorish walls. A tuneless band plays somewhere. Church bells stun the air. I see a ghost or a barefoot woman walk by smiling, a bucketful of calla lilies on her head. Through the open door of a church, I glimpse a wooden Jesus in a wine-colored velvet robe. Cobbles and narrow, raised sidewalks force me to notice where I place my feet, imposing a minuet with each passing person.
In a small, thronged plaza, we sit on an iron bench gazing up at a quirky pink church, its serrated spires embedded in a full complement of stars. These strolling, chatting, laughing citizens don't seem to realize the TV they're missing at home. I war with the evening's sweet lassitude, trying to keep it all outside, avoiding eyes. I feel repeatedly for my wallet, my passport. Vainly I fish for the summarizing blurb, the snapshot, the quick hit.
Drop it, something whispers. Just let it all go ...
Our Spanish-style house was in an area south of Hollywood known in real estate parlance as "Hancock Park adjacent," an attempt to bind it to the million-dollar neighborhood close by. We'd bought it with money made writing words and music, designing clothes, and making art. We were busy, successful, tired.
An uncharacteristically cold January, and we kept the heater on all day. A book of mine had just come out and I was trying to get a grip on the next one: a story about a dwarf writer in a South American prison and an American lawyer attempting to free him. I was spending afternoons at the Amnesty International office downtown, poring through prisoner files, reading about the dirty war in Argentina, atrocities in West Africa, slaughter in East Timor. I was bringing home books with names like Torture in the 1980s. Masako would look at me oddly. She herself was painting large, grim self-portraits, acrylic on canvas.
At dinners I listened politely to friends' conversation about the price of real estate, projects in development, notable recent crimes. After a cultural night out I lay in bed reviewing the drive there and back, the parking experience, where I put my keys—the event itself barely recalled. I left messages on machines; they were returned in kind. Surrounded by art, music, information, and food, I saw, heard, thought, and tasted little. A series of robberies and killings had erupted in our neighborhood: first the Bob's Big Boy murders, in which the victims were executed; then a robbery at a favorite restaurant two blocks away, the customers mugged and herded into a freezer; then a break-in at the house next door. In a moment of grave personal defeat, I installed a house alarm system with an "Armed Response" sign stabbed into our lawn, a blinking "command center," "perimeter defense," "panic button," and roving patrol cars. We were wired for apocalypse: Blade Runner was no longer a metaphor.
There were days when I'd find myself hurtling down freeways toward receding destinations of evaporating worth, suspended between the fantastic and the mundane, between wide acclaim and abject defeat. Somewhere, I'd missed a turnoff.
Cold, anxious, trapped inside our house, we'd taken to bed early one night to keep warm. Masako was leafing through an issue of Gourmet, a Christmas subscription from a friend. I was with Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia. The Gourmet magazine represented to me the very complacent consumerism we'd once scorned, now breaking through our "perimeter defenses." In youth we'd both traveled widely on shoestrings, lived in Europe, North Africa, India, Japan. Now we had the money but no time. Instead we read about it, recounted old experiences, festooned our dwellings with Third World artifacts, talismans of trips once taken.
"Look," Masako said, holding open a double-page color spread.
Warm rose-colored walls, azure sky, red bougainvillea. A scalloped fountain, a courtyard restaurant, a sandstone church spire.
"Isn't that where Mina and Paul go?"
We'd known them separately in Berkeley before we met, then again in Los Angeles together. Mina makes and teaches independent films; Paul is a painter best known for his surrealistic record cover paintings for avant-garde rock bands. Years earlier they'd fled bad marriages and run off together to Mexico. They still returned there every summer. When asked about it, they always grew vague.
"San Miguel de Allende," the caption said, "in the mountains of central Mexico."