Mexico City

“Rosie had in fact approached the bar, placed one purple-veined elephant leg on the brass rail, and was preparing to launch one of her unsolicited performances.”

The doctors in Mexico City learned early not to cry. Sergio, a visiting surgery fellow in our Roosevelt Hospital residency training program, would describe the operations he’d performed in cemeteries without so much as a catch in his voice; and his eyes were dry when he talked about his fiancé being gunned down by riot police during a student demonstration. Though he was only thirty-two when Andrew and I met him, many of his friends were already dead.

Sergio had grown up in the hills outside of Cuernavaca in a villa with a pool bordered by red tiles where he swam every day from the time he was five. At eighteen he was offered a place on the Mexican Olympic Swim Team but chose to join a peasant rebellion instead. The only revolutionary among his three brothers and two sisters, Sergio had left home after antagonizing his father by announcing his intention to become a “barefoot doctor.” (Felipe Ruiz owned the biggest Mercedes dealership in Mexico and feared that his son’s activities would alienate his politically conservative clientele.) Sergio’s mother, a copper-haired Englishwoman born and raised on a farm in Surrey, was the horsy daughter of a French-Jewish millionaire and a devout Anglican Englishwoman who had once been a chambermaid. Alicia Ruiz had adapted well to her new life in Mexico; she simply transplanted her interest in horses to managing her large household staff, playing bridge, and overseeing charitable fundraisers. The Ruiz family took frequent holidays in Europe, visiting on occasion with Sergio’s millionaire Jewish grandfather in the south of France.

Sergio was short and brown-skinned with the quick movements of a jack rabbit. He was shy and wore round, thick-lens glasses with tortoise shell frames that made him look even more scholarly than he was. When he’d been a kid, he said, his teeth were so crooked that he hardly spoke to anyone at school because he was ashamed to open his mouth. His mother made him wear braces and take dancing lessons in the hope of socializing him. Every Wednesday, he and an awkward young girl from a neighboring estate were chauffeured to a dancing school run by a portly French woman in a purple long-sleeved gown with white lace wrist ruffles. Paola and Sergio sat in the back seat of the Mercedes like two cardboard dolls, not talking, each terrified of looking at the other, Sergio in black short pants and an Eton jacket that was too tight across his chest, and Paola in pink tulle and white gloves. Of course they fell madly in love and both went on to become medical students and revolutionaries together, until the day Paola got gunned down in Oaxaca.

Whenever Andrew was on-call, Sergio and I would share a bottle of wine in a funky bar habituated by down-and-outers a few blocks from the hospital in the dappled shadows under the West Side Highway trestle. It was a picturesque and sad place, a fitting backdrop to Sergio’s stories, and, on our off-hours, we soon became regulars. Andrew, whose tastes were more upscale, had joined us once or twice but always found a good excuse not to return afterward.

We were sitting at our usual table, half-heartedly watching a baseball game on the TV above the bar, when Sergio asked me to come down to Mexico City with him to work for “la revolucion”.

“This isn’t real,” I said, “I’m dreaming this conversation, this place . . .”

“I can’t believe I’m here myself,” Sergio gazed, as always, a little past my shoulder. It was his habit never to look me straight in the eye. We were both a little bit in love with each other but didn’t want to acknowledge it because I was married to Andrew.

“Did you always want to be a doctor . . . or did you ever want to be something else?” I asked to change the subject.

Bluntly, almost angrily, Sergio said, “A woodcarver once, when I was a kid.”

Then, instead of lifting his hand from the table and caressing his beautiful surgeon’s fingers, which was what I really wanted to do, I found myself promising to come to Mexico City and work for la revolucion.

“Good. We drink to that!” Sergio poured the last of the wine into our glasses.

I noticed that the bottle was slightly chipped at the mouth and that I was drunker than I thought and would probably be sorry tomorrow for what I had promised so cavalierly.

“We’ve been drinking ground glass,” I said, thinking, damn you, Sergio, and your social justice routine. Why don’t you just take me to your apartment and make love to me?

The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and I thought I saw Rosie, a bulky singer of off-color ditties who’d taken a liking to us, expand and float toward the doorway.

“Rosie’s blotted out the sun,” I said dreamily.

“No,” said Sergio, “it’s someone else. Another Rosie.” Was he drunk too?

The conversation trickled off, giving way to the toot of fog horns on the Hudson. Now it was raining outside, though it had been a perfectly sunny day when we first sat down.

“God, Faye, do you realize what a momentous occasion this is?” Sergio grabbed my hand suddenly and shook it hard.

“Looks like Rosie’s going to serenade us,” I responded muzzily. Rosie had in fact approached the bar, placed one purple-veined elephant leg on the brass rail, and was preparing to launch one of her unsolicited performances.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sergio said, his glasses misting over in the now steamy bar.

“Where to?”

“The movies . . . anywhere . . .”

“What about Andrew?”

“Call him and tell him he must come too.”

“Hi, dearie, Rosie cawed at me as I passed her at the bar. And I recognized instantly what I could never have seen while dead sober: Rosie was a transvestite.

“Didn’t you know it all along?” Sergio asked as we were heading cross town toward the Lincoln Square multiplex in a Checker cab papered with stickers denouncing everything but Marine World in Florida.

“That Rosie was a man?”


“No, damn it. I once even peed in the woman’s toilet with him standing in front of the mirror at the sink applying make-up.”

We both laughed.

* * * *

A month later I was on leave in Mexico City training as a demonstration marshal, studying crowd control, and helping Sergio organize the university’s medical faculty and students in a protest march against the imprisonment of a union leader named Vallejo. I didn’t know it then, but Sergio’s Mexico City demonstration, along with several others around the country, had been planned as a dry run before the Zapatista uprising. Not that knowing what was coming would have changed anything once Sergio had worked his revolutionary magic on me. We didn’t become lovers. I’d half hoped we would, but Sergio was too ethical for that. He slept on the sofa in the living room of the flat in the Pedregal we shared with an older American medical student named Margo who’d divorced her husband and left her two daughters with her mother in North Dakota, in order to attend, as she put it, the only medical school in the hemisphere that would have her. Margo had been an army nurse in the States before deciding to become a doctor. Her porcelain-white skin and baby blue eyes belied her tough anti-American persona, but she had yet to shed her military boot camp training. She’d moved in only two days before me but her side of our shared bedroom was already meticulously arranged when I arrived, everything in its proper place: medical books in sparsely occupied bookcases, spotless desk, personal items tucked out of sight in khaki rayon bags. Margo sat on the edge of her bed eyeing me suspiciously as I unpacked my hibiscus-flowered suitcase and stuffed my things into drawers in no particular order. Later, when we got to know each other better, she confessed that my “Hawaiian luggage and hick outfit” (a checked gingham pinafore and wooden clogs) that first day, had convinced her I was a CIA plant, and I told her I’d automatically a
ssumed that, being military, she was a lesbian—and we both had a good laugh because—-as events later proved–neither of us could have been more wrong.

Every day, we’d join Sergio and his radical friends in a Zona Rosa café called The Laughing Horse. We’d sit there for hours on tiny, cramped white wire chairs around dollhouse-sized tables, planning for the demonstration, arguing politics, stuffing ourselves with soggy guacamole and stale tostadas, and drinking too much Tequila.

It was at the Laughing Horse where I watched Sergio fall out of love with me and in love with Margo. A TV Soap star named Felix unsuccessfully tried convincing me to have an affair with him instead. Humberto, a penniless film director, finished cutting his documentary on the last days of Trotsky in Mexico, to which I had contributed most of my money, and our motley group celebrated the event by cramming into an ancient Volkswagen beetle and driving around the Paseo de Reforma honking the horn and shooting colored streamers out the windows. The documentary’s scriptwriter, and owner of the Volkswagen, got a flat tire and forced us to abandon the car right under the nose of a policeman with a head-bashing baton at his waist and a prominently displayed revolver strapped to his chest. Felix, the black-haired Soap star, had begun pawing in the direction of my breasts, muttering something about existential decisions. Margo, who had drunk too much tequila, pushed him off me, hissing into his face that he and all men were filo da puta. After which, threatening to kill himself, Felix lunged into the mad Mexico City traffic. Fortunately, Humberto snatched him out of the road just in time to avoid being run down by a door-less and windowless bus jammed with farm workers.

On the morning before the march, Sergio announced over a poached egg that he and Margo were going to be married. Margo was out taking an anatomy exam, it was drizzling lightly. I had just closed the door and returned from the hall after having paid the bread man. I placed two fresh rolls on the table in front of Sergio and stood watching him eat. Seeing him sitting there, in his crisp blue denim work shirt, vulnerable as only a man eating his poached egg can be, no longer buck-toothed and shy but still wearing thick-lens glasses and not looking me in the eye, made me want to cry.

“When’s the wedding?”

“Friday, at noon, in the City Hall.”

“Will you throw me out of the flat?”

“By the time I was twelve I was an avowed enemy of the capitalist government in the United States, an urban guerrilla in my own country.”

“Pobrecita,” he said laughing.

“Well, I can’t live here with you and Margo. I’ll have to find a new place,” I said, turning to the stove.

“Of course not, you’ll stay here.”

“No, I can’t,” I said, hating myself for throwing money at Humberto in order to ingratiate myself with Sergio and guilty for no longer being in love with Andrew. I turned up the flame under the coffee pot then poured warmed milk halfway into a mug and waited.

Sergio buttered a roll and placed it on my plate. “You know, I used to sneak the best food from my mother’s pantry and bring it to the peasants who worked on our estate. By the time I was twelve I was an avowed enemy of the capitalist government in the United States, an urban guerrilla in my own country.”

The coffee pot hissed. I poured some into my mug, stirred in a spoonful of sugar, set the pot back on the stove, and sat down at the table. Through the curtain-less window, a sudden ray of sunlight pierced the smoggy drizzle illuminating the roll on my plate. “We’ll have good weather for the parade tomorrow,” I said.

As I’d predicted, the sky was blue and cloudless the next day. The air was clear, free of the usual stink of diesel fuel; there were no cars, no scooters, not even a city bus in sight. Everyone was in a holiday mood: even the policemen on their balky horses were laughing. Onlookers were already lining both sides of the Paseo de Reforma three rows deep behind the sawhorses when Margo and I arrived at the designated meeting point. Banners fastened to street lamps billowed lightly in the wind—-red, yellow, royal purple, and dragon green. Office workers leaning out the windows of their buildings signaled their solidarity with the gathering marchers by throwing handfuls of heart-shaped confetti. Sergio was up ahead, testing the sound system on the speakers’ platform that had been constructed in the Zocalo. As principal organizer of the event, he’d been responsible for obtaining a permit and, after bribing the appropriate municipal authorities, a promise of no police harassment.

Slipping on our white armbands and taking up our megaphones, Margo and I began organizing the demonstrators. We had drawn lots for marching partners earlier that morning, and I was greatly relieved not to have drawn horny Felix, but soft-spoken Humberto, who was gay, and whose stylish tweed and leather-patch-sleeved jacket, ever present pipe, and directorial confidence were far more reassuring. Humberto and I had just linked arms and were waiting for the signal to start marching when a low-flying police helicopter swooped down and buzzed the crowd.

“CIA, GO AWAY!” shouted a student in a brown corduroy suit, pumping his fists as he leapt from his cross-legged seat on the pavement behind the sawhorse. His companions immediately jumped to their feet and joined the chant. A young woman pretended to shoot the helicopter out of the sky with her thumb and forefinger: “CIA, GO AWAY! CIA, GO AWAY!” The helicopter was so close now that three men in civilian clothes could be seen peering out of the open door. Oblivious to the jeers of the crowd, two of them were waving enthusiastically.

A small ruckus exploded out of a side street. Word came that horses were being turned on a rowdy cluster of marchers. Together, Humberto and I hurried in that direction to confirm the report, which, it turned out, was only a rumor—but worrisome nonetheless, for, after all the initial gaiety, there was a definite whiff of paranoia coursing through the crowd. Fortunately the marching signal—-a white handkerchief tied to a pole being waved from across the street–prevented it from spreading. With arms locked, in rows extending fifteen across, the marchers surged ahead chanting “Free Vallejo!” The last and loudest line to join us, a phalanx of Labor Unionists, spewed from the side streets, leaving the monument start point deserted. Their hoarse cries demanding Vallejo’s release blended with ours, creating for one fleeting but exalted moment the unearthly harmony of a Gregorian chant.

Directly in front of me a woman pushed a toddler in a pram waving a Che Guevara paper flag. We were just approaching the first cross street when a man suddenly bolted from the sidelines and, aiming directly at the Che Guevara flag, pitched a tomato. Instinctively breaking ranks and pulling away from Humberto, I jumped in front of the child–and caught the splattering tomato’s juice and seeds in the chest. The woman with the pram marched on without acknowledging me; but the Unionists who had seen me take the hit were stomping and hollering their approval. Egged on by their cheers, I turned to face them, dipped my fingers into the mess and pretended to lick off the “blood” before rejoining Humberto in the line.

We encountered our first group of hecklers in front of the Hilton. Flashing my stained chest at them, I shouted “Cowards! Free Vallejo!”—which set the hecklers to booing and the Unionists to chanting even louder and drowning them out. Unaccountably buoyed by their battle cries, I could no longer distinguish friend from foe: the hecklers, the mustached policeman rocking back and forth on his horse alongside me, the woman pushing the pram, the girl with the defiantly bobbing blond pony tail, the fist-brandishing Unionists, the marching band now segueing into an incongruously rollicking version of Guantanamero; however, my moment of ecstatic oneness was interrupted when the music suddenly spiraled out of con
trol, panicked drum beats, short blasts from the tuba piercing the air like cannon fire, and now—unmistakably– human screams coming from the direction of the Zocalo.

Tearing through the seams of our carefully organized formations, the marchers in front of me were scattering. Raising the megaphone to my lips, I shouted for them to get back into line but no one heard me, or if they did, they were too intent on scrambling for safety to regroup. Humberto had grabbed my free hand and was pulling me forward. I dropped the megaphone and felt it crumple under my feet. The girl with the pony tail to the right of me was gone. The scruffy boy in sandals with her had fled too. The woman with the pram had abandoned it and, carrying the child in her arms, was seeking refuge among the dispersing onlookers behind the no longer existing sidelines where the no longer laughing mounted policemen and their frenzied whinnying horses were chasing down onlookers and demonstrators alike through a maze of bunting. Still holding hands, Humberto and I joined the blind scattering mob but were unable to move either forward or backward. Our efforts at threading a sideways path toward the curb were equally unsuccessful. From the Zocalo, clearly now, came the steady burst of gunfire.

Many of the musicians, too, had bolted and were now scattering through the streets. A beautiful black woman holding a trumpet high over her head pressed against me, her hair brushing my face. Tugging at my monitor’s armband, she screamed in English, “They’re shooting! They’ve opened fire at the Zocalo. They’re killing us!”

Flailing their truncheons, the mounted police plowed into the crowd. Still holding my hand, Humberto zigzagged back and forth trying to avoid them. A heavyset girl in a pink dress wasn’t as nimble and, having taken several blows to the neck and head, was bleeding. I reached out to help her but was blocked by a policeman wedging his horse between us. Leveling a barrage of curses and maneuvering the horse only inches from my face, he swung his truncheon first at the bleeding girl, then at me. The girl fell and Humberto dragged me away screaming. Weaving through the melee, he didn’t stop until we’d reached an eerily empty side street behind the Reforma. It was only after he’d propped me sagging against the wall of a cold stone building that he finally let go of my hand. The windows of a nearby shop, an elegant handbag boutique that had been looted, lay shattered on the sidewalk.

“Home, Humberto. Take me home, please,” I gasped, falling against his chest.

Miraculously, Sergio, unhurt, was in the flat when we arrived. His shirt was stained with blood, his thick-lens glasses were shattered but he was still wearing the frames. Margo, he said, had been slightly injured; it was her blood on his shirt. She was in the hospital but there was no need for me to venture out; he’d arranged with the emergency room doctor, a friend, to get her back to the flat in an ambulance—-maybe later, maybe tomorrow. He was leaving for Cuba right away. He might contact me. On the other hand, I was not to worry if I didn’t hear from him for a while. He was being monitored. Then, almost off-handedly, he added, “Andrew called. He said to get on the next flight out and come back home.” Standing for a moment in the doorway, Sergio flashed me the victory sign. “Good luck, Faye,” he said. Then he slipped out of my life as casually as he’d entered it.

* * * * *
Papua New Guinea

I might have caught a glimpse of Sergio again three months later, on January 1st, while NAFTA was being celebrated in Mexico City, the same day the Zapatistas emerged from their jungle training centers and took control of five major towns in the state of Chiapas–where, ignoring Andrew’s tepid recall–I’d joined Medecins Sans Frontieres as a staff doctor. It could have been the thick-lens glasses worn by the serape-wrapped peasant in sandals running past our makeshift hospital tent; or that I needed to see him again, to thank him for teaching me how to serve. Maybe it wasn’t as noble as that, maybe I just needed to prove I was no longer an armchair revolutionary living vicariously through him. Whatever the reason, I can’t say for certain it was Sergio. That was ten years ago, and I haven’t seen or heard from him since. Not that it matters.

Perle Besserman is the recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem. Her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly and Bamboo Ridge, among others. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages. Her most recent book of creative non-fiction, combining memoir, storytelling, and women’s spiritual history is A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan); and her latest story collection, Marriage and Other Travesties of Love, is currently available online from Cantarabooks.