Porno on the tube, nothing but porno—on every channel. I clicked through an endless parade of body parts locking with other body parts. Undulating, jiggling, flexing, foaming, squirting. Twosomes, threesomes, fivesomes, and solo acts.
Sitting on the edge of the king-sized bed, I touched as little of the hot pink polyester bedspread as possible. I glanced back at my mom curled fetally behind me. A stab of afternoon light slanting between the blinds illuminated her pale face, slack with sleep. A thread of drool stretched between the corner of her mouth and a frilly pink pillow. Her chainsaw snores laid a bizarre soundtrack behind the pseudo-feverish coupling on TV.
My mom had collected me at the airport in Puerto Vallarta three days earlier. She’d been living in Mexico for ten years, selling her vivid impressionist paintings in galleries on the malecón. We hugged, holding tight. I noticed changes right away: how her Cleopatra makeup failed to hide the circles under her eyes; how her leathery expat tan had paled.
“I know” she said, “I’m pasty. The sun makes me dizzy.”
Her name was Meridy, but even I just called her Mer. She had always been intense, brash, overweight—a person who took up space in a room. She wasn’t thin now, but seemed somehow diminished. Though she’d been diagnosed with Hepatitis-C five years earlier, Mer had put off treatment. In unpleasant matters, she was of the maybe if I ignore this, it’ll go away school. Hep-C is a “silent killer,” a slow-moving illness. By the time her symptoms appeared, her liver had already suffered too much damage to function properly. She was careening toward liver failure.
In 2003, treatment options were paltry, but Mer had found an experimental drug trial requiring twelve months on an Interferon/Riboviron cocktail—heavy-duty chemo. The list of possible side effects covered two pages in miniscule font, and ranged from classics like vomiting and diarrhea to homicidal tendencies. The success rate was a grim forty percent, but it was the only shot she had.
Mer would have to move to Los Angeles to enroll in the drug trial. She was already broke and couldn’t expect to work during treatment. She needed a nurse, a breadwinner, and a friend.
When I got the call, I was living in Cuba, studying sociology at the University of Havana as part of the first wave of exchange students from the US. Before that, I’d spent two years in Ecuador and a year in Europe; once my Cuban visa expired, I planned to angle for Colombia or Brazil.
Growing up, I’d been a misfit. Unfamiliar surroundings put me at ease in my own skin. I didn’t want a nice car, a cushy desk job with a retirement plan; didn’t want to watch Seinfeld or go on shopping dates with girlfriends; didn’t want to describe my experiences in terms of their usefulness in building career skills; didn’t want to watch Old Man Bush campaign for Little Boy Bush on television news. I wasn’t a patriot and would not hold my hand over my heart to pledge allegiance. I had left my birth country for dead.
Mer and I had always taken care of each other. My father had drifted in and out of my life, ever since the divorce when I was nine. Mer didn’t remarry and I had no siblings. Us against the world, that was our story. When my elementary school principal summoned my mom to a conference because I’d called Mrs. Ahearn a bitch, Mer said, “So? Ahearn is a bitch.”
Of course I would go. We were an army of two.
“Where should I put these to sneak them in?” I asked, holding up two-dozen hand-rolled Cuban cigars I’d bought in Pinar del Rio. Contraband in the US, these were the ultimate souvenir.
Mer nudged a ceramic laughing Buddha with her toe. “Here,” she said, “stick them up his ass.”
Mer lived in the nook where Olas Altas, the cobblestone heart of touristy Vallarta Viejo, ended in a wall of jungle. Her belongings lay in heaps for gifting or packing. After filling one box with keepsakes, she’d begun tossing things helter-skelter into garbage bags and laundry baskets.
I wrapped the cigars in cellophane, shoved them inside the statue’s hollow body, and buried Buddha in a basket of clothing.
Next morning, we crammed everything into Mer’s beater car. “Yetta the Jetta” was a dented, shit-brown ’91 sedan with unreliable air conditioning, a blinky Check Engine light, and a trunk we had to secure with a crosshatch of bungee cords.
Most of the artwork would stay in galleries. “I’m only taking ‘Mersie,’ ” she said, referring to a painting of herself as a four year-old. In the self-portrait, her head is tilted like a bemused puppy’s and haloed in corkscrew curls. Pink slacks hitched up between her chubby thighs, palms facing the viewer, fingers softly folded. Tender and defenseless.
“I haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “Right?”
Swallowing past a tightening throat, I wedged “Mersie” on top of the heap in the backseat—our little passenger. “Can you believe that’s everything I own?” Mer said. “Except for my paintings, which will be worth a lot more when I’m dead.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”
She shrugged. “It’s all I have to give you.”
Our 2,585 km journey began on a perfect driving day, warm enough to keep the windows down, but not so hot as to glue my sweaty thighs to the car seat. The air smelled of ocean brine and plant life with undertones of raw sewage.
This drive would be our last taste of freedom before entering the chemo trap. Moments I savored: hand-surfing the wind out the open window, teaching my mom Cuban cuss words, cringe-laughing when gigantic insects splatted the windshield. Moments I swallowed bitterly: counting down the kilometers to Los Angeles, seeing Mer wince in pain out of the corner of my eye, hearing her remind me for the zillionth time that her paintings would make me rich after she died.
Posthumous fame was her version of a plan. She didn’t have medical insurance, life insurance, a savings account, or a retirement fund. In her entire life, she’d never earned a regular paycheck. Mer survived from painting to painting, selling pot when things got “scrapey.” Her work was good, but the high-finance art world remained an impenetrable fortress, guarded by agents and museum curators. How was I supposed to break in if she couldn’t?
Dense jungle lined Highway 200, the trees choked with climbing vines and splashy flowers. Occasional breaks in the greenery opened onto the blueberry-blue Pacific. A haze rode the air, either sea moisture or pollution. From a roadside stand, we bought succulent fruits and ate them en route, juice dribbling down our chins and necks, turning the car’s interior sticky and fragrant.
An hour into our drive, we hit an agricultural checkpoint. Traffic cones routed us to a thatched hut armed by uniformed men clutching machine guns. Rolling down the window, I looked into the peach-fuzzy mug of a boy not older than sixteen.
The child-Fed asked if we were carrying fruits or vegetables.
This should have been a simple answer: obviously, yes. Yetta was a cornucopia. I’m not sure why I lied. Maybe I didn’t want to pull over and unpack Mer’s life. My sights landed on a bright green apple sitting between us in the console. I’d bought it during a layover in Ecuador and never gotten around to eating it.
“Sólo tenemos esta manzana,” I said, holding it up.
The child-Fed pursed his lips. His eyes narrowed into an expression of disdain, as if my waxed, pedestrian fruit insulted his intelligence.
“Eso no cuenta,” he said.
My apple didn’t count? That made no sense to me. Cars were accumulating in the road behind us. I extended the apple toward him, an offering. He shook his head and waved us on without registering the mango rinds littering the floor or the sugary glaze on our fingers and forearms.
I lost track of how many checkpoints we crossed. Each time, the feds sneered at my Ecuadorian apple and wanted nothing to do with us.
The apple became our talisman. Mer, with her hodgepodge hippie spirituality, surrounded herself with pseudo-magical trinkets—I Ching coins, tarot decks, Santería candles, dream crystals, statuettes of Kali and Buddha. While I didn’t believe in that stuff, it was sometimes comforting to pretend, to imagine that wishes had power. We kept the green apple handy in the console, where we could touch it for luck.
Late that afternoon, Mer was at the wheel, while I gorged on an overripe mango that turned to jam in my hands. I was going hog wild, slurping loudly, just losing myself in the messy sensuality of the thing, when we rounded a corner and hit a checkpoint. I dropped the sloppy seed into the crack beside my seat and launched into my apple routine.
As we pulled away, Mer’s face crumpled in helpless laughter. “Your teeth,” she wheezed, “your teeth!” I looked in the visor mirror. They were coated in an orange ooze, bright hairs protruding from the gaps. A gob of mango flesh dangled from my chin.
We stayed in a dusty town along Highway 15, south of Tepíc. After dark, the ranchero music from a nearby restaurant gave way to cricket song.
Mer couldn’t sleep without the distraction of a TV; I couldn’t sleep with one on. When her snores regularized, I clicked off the tube so I could rest.
Small noises woke her throughout the night. “Hon,” she’d hiss, “someone’s at the car!” At which point, I’d drag myself out of bed, huffing and eye-rolling like a snotty teenager, to look out the window at a half-starved street dog trolling the gutter for edibles.
“Would you fucking relax?” I snapped after the third time.
“Mersie’ is out there,” she said quietly.
“I was sleeping.”
She turned the TV on.
I clamped my head between pillows, making a head sandwich to dull the noise.
She was already driving me nuts. The fretting. The nagging. The neediness. I wanted to be a compassionate caregiver, but what if the bitch in me kept the upper hand? I wasn’t cut out for nursing.
I kicked off the sheets and stomped outside to retrieve the painting, which I propped against the wall opposite Mer’s bed.
“There,” I said. “Happy?”
We awoke with bags under our eyes. “Matching luggage,” I quipped. Exhaustion blatant in her features, Mer seemed to have aged overnight. We’d need somewhere to stay where the car would be secure, and she could worry less.
The tropics gave way to vast stretches of farmland and dry fields, punctuated by spiky palms. The gnawing revved-up in my gut. How sick was Mer going to get? Would I have to mop her vomit? I couldn’t even watch an actor fake-puke in a movie without sympathy gagging. I worried about the claustrophobia of being Mer’s sole emotional support, the only person to talk to late at night. I didn’t know how I would earn enough to support both of us.
We drove in silence through the morning.
Near the coastal city of Mazatlán, Yetta began to keen. Our combined knowledge of cars would fit on a Post-It, but this metallic whine seemed abnormal—even for a Jokeswagon.
“Fuck me,” Mer muttered. “I always break down in Mazatlán.” When Mer had driven this route years before, she explained, she’d spent two days marooned with a busted water pump. “It’s an armpit,” she said, “a real mierda-hole.”
The whine grew into a wail. We entered the dregs of Mazatlán rocking back and forth in our seats, trying to propel Yetta with our bodily momentum.
We found a garage with a chipped wooden sign that read Hermanos González. A dusty mountain of tires spilled into the roadway out front. Inside, Tecate posters plastered the walls, greased bikini models licking condensation from beer cans. A mechanic poked through Yetta’s engine. “No se preocupen,” he said, wiping his hands on a rag. “Es la banda, nada sério.” It’s the fan belt, nothing serious. He’d have to call around town to find a replacement part, which could take a few hours.
Mazatlán’s beachfront attracted tourists, but we were nowhere near it. This was a residential neighborhood: butchers, laundromats, cobblers, crumbling houses painted lavender and tiger lily. A mangy cat rubbed his scent glands on my bare calf.
Shading her eyes, Mer squinted toward a beauty parlor down the block. “Mani-pedi?”
I hadn’t had a pedicure in years and my feet were frightening. Mer frowned at her long acrylic fingernails. She used them as painting tools; they were caked with dried pigment.
In the salon, two teenaged girls, one extremely pregnant, sat flipping through gossip magazines. A telenovela blared from an orange-tinted TV on a folding table. We were the only customers. The pregnant girl ushered us to folding chairs, while her coworker filled plastic tubs with foamy water that smelled like Palmolive. I slipped out of my sandals, wiggling my toes in anticipation of a rare luxury.
Then came the familiar reaction, the bulging eyes, the suppressed giggles.
Mer and I exchanged smirks. We shared this trait: gargantuan gorilla feet, gunboats, water-skis.
Mer’s feet were puffy and thick, while mine were long-toed and bony, but we both wore a US 10. An above-average size stateside, but not extreme. In Mexico, however, women tended to be petite, their feet adorable.
“Thanks a lot,” I said to Mer, dunking my outlandish appendages, sloshing displaced water onto the floor, “for the enormous fucking feet.”
With a tiny smile, Mer tipped her head back and closed her eyes. “Don’t blame me. You got those from your father.”
The Hermanos Gonzalez liberated Yetta at sunset, improved with a not-exactly-new fan belt. We drove around Mazatlán, scanning for lodging with indoor parking. Along the touristy malecón, bouncy pop blasted from Señor Frog’s and Bubba Gump’s, and behemoth resorts squatted on the white sand beach. Even stretching beyond our price range, the hotel parking situations didn’t seem secure enough to leave Yetta unwatched.
Vacationers strolled the strip in the golden evening, sporting sunburns and flip-flops, parents drunk on 2-for-1 specials, kids hopped up on extra-sugary Coke. Most probably wouldn’t stray from this neighborhood where they could order burgers and Budweiser in English.
I felt smug. We weren’t afraid to get pedicures off the beaten track.
“I’ve got it!” Mer snapped her fingers, turquoise nails clicking. “We’ll stay in a park-n-poke.”
“A love motel.” On the outskirts of any Mexican town worth its salt, she explained, one could rent rooms by the hour in sleazy dives. Most came with individually locked garages, so patrons could diddle anonymously, their cars hidden.
“Get it?” she giggled. “You park. And then you poke.”
Why my mom knew so much about park-n-pokes, I refused to ask—though I could see she was waiting. When I lost my virginity at fifteen, she bequeathed me her copy of the Kama Sutra. “Honey, if you’re going to start having sex,” she said, “you might as well do it right.” From then on, I was privy to the details of her patchy love life. Like it or not.
“How are we supposed to find one?” I asked.
“We’ll know it when we see it.”
Motel Écstasis was indeed impossible to miss. Pink hearts danced across a neon arch at the entrance. We pulled into a motor court surrounded by flamingo-colored buildings, each with its own entrance and garage.
In the office, the walls were powder pink and peeling. A bullfighting calendar hung open to January of the prior year. Without looking up from the magazine in his lap, the mustached proprietor asked,“¿Cuántas horas?”
“Um… all night?”
That seemed to catch his attention. Mer turned on the maternal charm, full blast. She draped her arm around my shoulder. Beaming with pride, she said, “Mi hija.”
Everything in our room at Motel Écstasis—from the carpet to the toilet—was Pepto Bismol pink, Barbie pink, or vagina pink. A mirror gleamed on the ceiling. Heart stencils graced the walls, and a candy dish on the night table brimmed with condoms. The bedside lamp, ashtray, and remote control were bolted down to thwart theft.
“Come on,” I said. “We can do better than this.”
“I’m tired, honey. This is fine.” Mer’s hand was clamped to her side, over her liver. The circles under her eyes looked like bruises. There was no denying her fatigue.
I realized with a sinking feeling that she would win every argument this way from now on.
I folded down the hot pink polyester bedspread whose cleanliness was, shall I say, dubious. Mer sprawled and flipped on the TV.
On every channel.
Furthermore, American porno dubbed into Spanish. While their mouths formed the words, “Oh yeah, do me!” their voices moaned, “¡Ay sí, pápi!”
“Look,” I said, “you’re going to have to sleep without TV tonight.”
But Mer was already conked out.
A menu affixed to the wall offered the usual room service fare of double-headed dildos, flavored lube, and … pizza. Using the cotton-candy-colored phone bolted to the night table, I ordered a large pepperoni, a liter of Fanta, and a pint of Jack Daniels.
I needed a drink.
While Mer snored, I tried to relax with a book. After an hour, a large metal box I’d taken for an air conditioner slid open, seemingly of its own accord, revealing a two-way drawer built into the wall. Voila: our bill. I counted out pesos and pushed the drawer back through. Then came the pizza. The entire transaction took place anonymously.
Propped on pillows, we wolfed our greasy dinner. Later, I unearthed Scrabble from the car. You can imagine our game: Pussy intersected pecker, cum crossed clit, as we competed to produce the raunchiest language.
Mid-game, the bed began to shake violently. Scrabble tiles jounced off the board.
“Earthquake!” Mer gasped. But an earthquake would not cause the insistent banging—ga-gunk, ga-gunk, ga-gunk—that accompanying the tremors. It was the headboard in the room next-door slamming the wall.
I grinned at first. Then I saw Mer’s face. She’d rinsed a weird greenish color. Her mouth opened and closed silently, like a fish gasping on a d ock. She wasn’t breathing.
I sprang off the bed. “What’s wrong? What should I do?”
Strain distorted her features. The headboard pounded away—louder, faster. A man grunted, a woman screamed. I stared idiotically at the telephone, wracking my brain for the 911 equivalent.
Just like my mom to die in a Mexican park-n-poke.She emitted a piercing, airless noise—“eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”—like a whistling teapot. A single tear coursed down her cheek. I realized she was laughing so hard that she was over-blowing like a sax player hitting a harmonic.
A tide of relief knocked me onto the bed as our neighbors crescendoed.
We restarted Dirty Scrabble, but my heart wasn’t in it. I kept glancing into the ceiling mirror above the bed. Mer, short and round, with close-cropped curls; me, tall like my father, with oceans of frizzy red hair. Yet our postures were identical, facing each other across the Scrabble board, chins propped on our fists. We mimicked each others’ gestures, laughed at the same dumb things, swapped eye-rolls.
It landed like a kick in the gut that I really could lose her. The chemo might—statistically probably would—fail. What then? Cirrhosis. Death by toxicity. I’d lose not only my mom, but my best friend, my truest mirror.
This morbidity and fear collided with a swelling of happiness. Because even as we stared into the ghastly face of Mer’s illness, even as the sex cooties burrowed into our skin, the truth was we were having a blast. I’d be lucky to accompany this woman on her journey through hell.
That was the real adventure.
She glanced up, meeting my eyes in the ceiling mirror. “Better not be peeking at my Scrabble tiles.”
Two nights and two park-n-pokes later, we arrived at the Nogales-Sonora border and pulled into the line for returning US citizens. Out in the desert, far from the freeway, a wake of buzzards circled the air. I thought of people struggling across sludgy rivers and arid desert expanses—braving incomprehensible perils to reach a country I only wanted to avoid.
A barrel-chested guard in a crisp uniform waved us toward a parking area for inspection. Other travelers paused only to flash their US passports before continuing across the border, but what could we expect with a car so full of crap we’d had to bungee the trunk?
This was no agricultural checkpoint and these weren’t armed teenagers we could distract with red-herring fruit. This was the United States: land of the crew cut.
In the office of an exhausted-looking official, Mer prattled about her artwork and even played the chemo card, earning less sympathy than she’d probably hoped. I sneaked glances out the window where an inspector was dismantling our packing job. He dislodged “Mersie” from the backseat and leaned her against a post.
“Cuba, huh?” the official said, stopping at the page in my passport where my Cuban residency card was stapled. My visit had been legal, thanks to my studies. The cigars hidden in the Buddha were another matter.
Back outside, the inspector approached us, looking sweaty and red-faced after pulling the car apart.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I can’t let you bring this into the United States.”
In his meaty hand sat my preternaturally green Ecuadorian apple.
I suppressed an urge to snatch it back. This was our talisman—our magic and humor, our road luck. Several years of travel were ending. I’d have to get a square job, earn rectangular paychecks, pay rent on a boxy apartment. It felt like the death of freedom.
Sans magic apple, Mer and I entered a country neither of us wanted to see. The first billboard—advertising Taco Bell—made my throat constrict. Ads for Red Lobster, Walmart, and The Gap followed. Then came the first mall, a massive, almost Soviet building surrounded by a vast parking lot of shiny cars.
I didn’t want Mer to see me crying.
She reached across the console and squeezed my hand with her clammy fingers, long turquoise nails pressing my palm. With deep breaths, we steeled ourselves to battle her disease in this alien land.
Chemo was torture—no surprise—but it worked. Thirteen years later, Mer’s viral count remains undetectable. After treatment, she moved to the Indio desert and founded Art With Heart, a program that brings art classes to “at-risk” teens in juvenile hall, continuation schools, and halfway houses.
The green apple proved prophetic when I fell for the owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. It’s silly, but part of me wants to believe that my shiny Ecuadorian apple led me to my husband, even though I know that’s just Mer’s magical thinking sneaking in.
Our wedding, held at a salsa club, was more party than ceremony. Guests carried flamboyant Venetian masks hand-made by Mer and her incarcerated students. When my new husband slipped the traditional garter off my thigh and flicked it into the crowd, it landed atop the bouffant hairdo of a ninety year-old bookstore customer, and stuck there, dangling over her face.
From Mer’s table rose the sustained high note of a boiling teapot. Heads turned, but I knew it was just my mom doing one of her medical emergency laughs. Still kicking, still freaking people out.
Paintings by Meridy Volz; photographs provided by author.