Sickness and a faltering relationship challenge Anne Hoffman in Ajijic, Mexico.
I TOLD BEN that I was feeling really sick.
- “I think I’m going to vomit.”
“Oh, honeyface. No, it’s all in your mind.”
“No, I really think I’m going to vomit.”
“Honey, you’re fine.”
“I know sometimes you say that and sometimes you’re right…”
“Of course I’m right. I know you. You’re very emotio—“
“Oh god I have to call you back.”
I ran down to get to the first floor in Carmen’s split-level house, and vomited mercilessly in the area between the stairs and her bathroom. For the next three hours I lived in there. My body swayed with the pins and needles that emetic sensations bring on. I was awash with fear, uncertainty, and the unshakable sense that this could go on forever.
And Ben hadn’t helped much. Aside from his use of “honeyface,” that habitual cariño that I was more and more coming to resent, his tone had been cold, controlled. The sense that he “knew” me felt like a lie somehow. He didn’t know the me that was bent over a toilet in Mexico, raw and weak.
Carmen came home, confused but not alarmed, and offered me a big bowl of papaya to calm the stomach. When she mentioned the word fruta I thought I was going to die and she quickly got me a bucket and told me to stay in bed until this thing – a bug or food poisoning – had passed.
I called Ben back from bed, crying and weak. He offered some light comfort, but quickly changed the subject and ultimately ended with his characteristic, “Honey, I need to let you go.” But, of course, what he was always saying was that I needed to let him go.
I tried to sleep. When I couldn’t I read the English language newspaper Carmen had put on my night stand. It was written by American retirees who lived in Ajijic, a dry mountain town near hotsprings and Mexico’s largest lake – Chapala – which to my eyes seemed more like a large pond with lots of brown, mucky algal bloom.
The author in healthier times
One article was narrated by a couple who had traveled cross-country and figured out how to do it as a health-conscious road trip. “Pat and I made sure to pack our yoga mats,” said the chipper narrator, “because when you’re in the car all day long you really need the exercise at night.” She went on about packing lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, avoiding fast-food, and so on.
It was the sort of stuff my mom would have told me if she had actually been a hippie in the 60s like everyone else.
The next article was written by a swinging 65-year-old single. As one of the younger members of the retirement community, she was very much enjoying the attention of gentleman callers. “Of course, I’m not afraid to show a little skin,” she wrote, like we were friends now, “and the men have been very welcoming!”
I put down the revista and fell asleep. I dreamt feverishly of the old days of my relationship, when Ben shivered with vulnerability after we had sex, when he told me I was a Sufi poet, when we listened to Irish music.
Stuff was messed up. I knew that, my dreams knew that. The increasingly shorter conversations, the forced “honeyfaces”, my own feeling that I was bored. That this guy bored me. He was wicked cute, and I loved being close to him. I loved the idea of loving him. He was broken; we both had our emotional problems. I wanted to nurture him until there was no me left, so I could get to some Buddhist place of pure selflessness.
I woke up to vomit in the bucket. Interrupted sleep brought more dreams, dreams about Ajijic, the woman, and her obsequious breasts. “Cover up,” I told her. “Guys are supposed to like you for who you are.”
She looked doubtful.
In the morning Carmen brought me horchata and rice which I still couldn’t stomach. I kept vomiting and was starting to go from freak-out to actual panic. I want a doctor, I told her daughter in English.
Quiere un medico she told her mother in Spanish.
Un medico? This idea didn’t seem to resonate.
Carmen and her daughter talked for a good while. We were both sitting on the stairs, Carmen was in the living room. She and her daughter went back and forth. I tried to interject in my bad Spanish. Estoy enferma, I said over their serious conversation. Estoy muy enferma. Finally her daughter turned to me.
“My mom thinks that you make yourself sick because you worry all the time.”
Point, I thought. But still, not a fair one. When I expressed my concerns over diagnosing marathon diarrhea and vomiting as psychosomatic, her daughter went further. “You don’t eat a lot because you’re scared you’ll get sick. And then you really do get sick. And also when Mike stayed with us he never got sick.”
Oh my god. Mike. The shadow host student who spoke perfect Spanish and helped out around the house and doubled as Carmen’s ideal future son-in-law. I was definitely not Mike.
How well does anyone remember what actually prompts shock? It’s the shock itself we recall so well.
At this point, I really wanted to go home. I was tired of Mexico. Tired of getting lost in a city where taxis didn’t feel safe and the bus driver didn’t stop in my neighborhood unless I asked him to in my fragmented Spanish. I was frustrated by the American girls who ordered cocktails at lunch and took everything so lightly. I missed being able to drink water from the tap, to call home without it costing tremendous amounts of money. Most of all, I missed my codependent, but familiar, relationship.
When Ben finally broke up with me, I had to stop hiding under the covers in my bed at Carmen’s house. I had to stop resisting Spanish and step up to learning it. Simply put, I had to adapt. I don’t remember the details of our conversation because, really, how well does anyone remember what actually prompts shock? It’s the shock itself we recall so well.
What I do remember is standing on a beach a few weeks after my recovery, holding a cell phone, a friend momentarily gone to get me a drink, and him saying he needed out. I understood from his voice something I’d been terrified to admit – that he was completely out of love with me. He was done. He’d quit.
And so I went through all those stages of grief in the span of a few minutes. No! Why? Are you sure? You must be overworked.
“I’m not overworked.”
“But you’re stressed out,” I said, tears running down my face, my voice just a whimper now.
“This has been the only thing stressing me out. You. Us.”
I wanted to say, “Fuck you.” I wanted to say, “You stole so much of my life.”
Instead I said, “You were my first love and you are my soul mate and I’ll never stop loving you.”
Even as I said it I knew it wasn’t true, but I felt like I had to say it, somehow. Like it was the lie that might make him stay.
Ben hung up on me and my friend came back, holding a margarita. I was bawling, head in hands, choking sobs. Later that night I would drink gallons of alcohol, watch hippie travelers breath fire, and debate sleeping with one of them. I would start to write, to narrate this loneliness.
My roommate came out of the ocean and put her arms around me. She took me to the hotel’s outdoor shower.
I put my feet in at first, gingerly, and washed off the salt. Then my arms. Finally I took a step in, felt the water cascade over my body. The beach sand fell off. I closed my eyes and let the stream wash my face. It seemed to me a letting go of the old ways — the fighting, the patterns — so the self I’d hidden away for so long could break free.
I looked up at the water through the late afternoon sun and thought: this is starting over.