The winter sun warms the cobblestones that pave the Plaza de Armas in Oaxaca, Mexico. Heavy colonial archways shade the café tables where travelers and people-watchers and expatriates come to just sit. They sip their coffees and take in the scene: small boys hawking huge bunches of colorful balloons, musicians in worn suits and perfectly-ironed shirts stopping off for a shoeshine, ancient-faced Indians carrying baskets of greens on their heads. Beyond the zócalo, the Sierra Madre mountain range rings the town. There is no hurry here.
The atmosphere is relaxed, but inside I’m buzzing like one of the bees at the fruit vendor’s cart. I glance around the plaza, eyes barely resting on the balconies, the bandstand, the laurel trees, the women with dark braids and bright embroidered tops perched on the edge of the fountain, chatting. I check my watch and it isn’t even time yet.
I’ve come to Oaxaca to mark my 40th birthday, the passing of the decade during which I probably should have gotten married (again) and had children, but did not. It didn’t work out that way. But I am going to celebrate anyway, celebrate the fact that I have the freedom to run off and be in Mexico for my birthday; celebrate with someone—a friend? lover?—for whom all of life is a celebration if you just find the right spot in the sun to sit and take it all in.
I close my eyes to calm myself, and sense the faint whiffs of chocolate, coffee, and chiles that perfume the thin air. When I open my eyes I catch sight of him across the plaza: his soft denim jacket, thick silver bracelet, and chestnut curls that somehow, still, are not gray. I jump up, wave wildly, and he sees me—everyone sees me—and he drops his old leather suitcase and opens his arms wide.
In a moment, I am pressing my face against his, breathing in his familiar smell of cigars and sea, amazed, as always, to see him again. I met this man, the Professor, by chance over breakfast in a pensione on an Italian island four years ago, right after my husband left me. Over the course of those years, meeting every so often in a different city or island, he helped mend my heart. He has his life and I have mine, but every time we’re together, the scenery seems brighter, and the flavors more intense.
“Professore,” I say, breaking our embrace to search his face.
“Laura,” he says, with the soft rolling Italian pronunciation, which could also be Spanish. I like my name, and maybe myself, better in a Latin country. It’s softer.
The Professor sits at the cafe, orders coffee, and moves his chair close, positioning his face in the sun. He squeezes my hand. “Bel posto,” he says. Beautiful place.
“Incantado,” I say, not sure, as often happens, if I am speaking Italian or Spanish. Enchanted.
“La bella vita continua,” he says.
He tells me that I look as good as ever, and I say he looks even better, something has changed. He seems energetic and expansive for his normally cool Parisian aesthetics professor self, less pale. He is brimming with a secret joy.
By the time we walk several blocks back to our hotel, opening the door onto a promiscuous jungle of a garden, he has spilled the whole story. He finally left the wife who didn’t love him, who had been in love with someone else for years. And he’s found an exciting new relationship.
We sit at a colorful little tile table on the patio outside our room and he tells me everything. I’ve known there have been other women between our rendez-vous, and there have been other men for me, too. But I’m not sure I want to hear all of this. I don’t care to know, for instance, that she is Eastern European and a professor herself and teaches Comparative Literature. Even less that she probably spends more on her lingerie than her clothes. While he tells his story I stare at a banana tree, counting the leaves from the bottom, struggling to be able to say, by the time I reach the clear sky above, that I am happy for him, instead of sorry for myself. It’s not as if I ever imagined that I would end up in Paris with the Professor. Well, not very often. I did start taking French.
“I’m happy for you,” I say, finally, and I’m glad, at least, to see that adds to his joy. I’m trying not to think about how ironic it is that it is the Professor—the rogue, the adventurer, the Don Juan—who is happy to be settling down, while I, the one who has wanted a steady partner, a companion, a house and family, am sharing a hotel room with yet another man who likes me a lot and is not in love with me. If he says we can always be friends I will lose it completely.
I turn the key to our whitewashed room and he flops down on the carved wooden bed. I lie next to him, fighting tears, and he caresses my cheek. Then he strokes the small of my back.
I roll away and sit up. “Professor,” I finally say, “It’s too hard for me to be friends who tell each other everything about their love lives and still be lovers.”
“Not for me,” he says, sexy as ever.
I push his hand away and sigh. “Let’s go eat.”
I chose Oaxaca for my birthday, and convinced the Professor to join me (before this new romance of his), because I happened across a book by Italo Calvino, Under the Jaguar Sun, where each essay is devoted to one of the senses. Of all the cities in the world where Calvino had dined—and he was Italian, mind you—for him Oaxaca embodied the ultimate fulfillment of the sense of taste. Oaxacan cuisine, he wrote, mixes a cornucopia of native vegetables with spices and recipes brought over by the Spanish. Over the centuries, those cuisines were mingled, enhanced, and perfected by cloistered nuns (for whom cooking was one of their few earthly indulgences). Calvino called Oaxacan food “an elaborate and bold cuisine” with flavor notes that vibrate against each other in harmonies and dissonances to “a point of no return, an absolute possession exercised on the receptivity of all the senses.”
Ah, yes. For now, in Oaxaca, with the Professor, the food will have to do all the stirring of the senses.
And so we eat. We venture to a modest place near the hotel, where a stout woman does wonders in the tiny kitchen. We try dishes that are familiar by name, but taste unlike any Mexican food I’ve ever eaten. The guacamole is fresher, the tortillas sweeter and crisper. The dark sauce on the enchiladas and chiles rellenos seem concocted from an ancient, mysterious alchemy. For the French Professor, who has never stepped foot in this country before, and has only tried Mexican food second-hand in San Francisco when he visited me there, every taste is new.
For the next few days, we explore Oaxaca’s cuisine, trying moles in different colors each day—from Amarillo, with tomatillos and chiles, to a black, chocolaty mole negro. Each sauce requires days to prepare, and each bite is a layered, earthy, mouth-warming experience. The Professor sighs, watching me in anticipation of the pleasure of my bite, and then I sigh with him, adding the layers and spices of our history and passion to each complicated mouthful.
Between meals, we visit Monte Alban, the Zapotec ruins, climbing to the top of the pyramids to take in the wide sky and view of the town below. You can see why Cortés, who was offered anywhere in Mexico for himself, after his conquest, chose the Oaxaca Valley. Then we walk all the way back to town to find Aztec soup and chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves. We wander around the neat cobblestone streets another day, peeking into brightly painted churches, admiring cactus gardens, browsing in art galleries—and then we order annaheim and poblano chiles sautéed with fresh cheese, onions, and crème fraiche. We tour Oaxaca’s huge food market, past stalls with hanging pigs, fresh chocolate, stacks of cactus, and basketfuls of corn, tomatoes, onions, exotic greens, and roasted grasshoppers. Tidy piles of chiles stand as tall as me. We discover the chocolate factory and drink creamy hot chocolate, looking into each other’s eyes, bittersweet.
“Que rico,” I say to the server as I finish my chocolate. How delicious.
“How do you know Spanish?” the Professor asks.
I explain that my mother brought my three older sisters and me to live in Mexico for a summer when I was ten years old. We spent that time in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town not unlike Oaxaca, at an age when I was unafraid to roam around and try to talk to everyone. It was when I got my first taste of the wide world, and felt a hunger for its endless sights and flavors. It was also when I first understood that being able to speak another language, even the few phrases one can manage at ten, isn’t just a matter of translating familiar words; it’s a way of expanding your internal territory and venturing outside the borders of your culture and family. The fresh new sentences change the very nature of your thoughts, your usual reactions, and your sense of who you are. I learned, that summer, that I couldn’t speak a little Spanish without becoming a little Mexican. That exciting summer in San Miguel de Allende—discovering the pleasures of discovery—was when I first became a traveler.
“Intelligent mother,” says the Professor, pushing back from the table, content.
Eventually it is our last evening, and we have finished dinner down to the mescal, satiated with the place, cheeks warmed, and cheerful, for the moment, with our transition to friends.
“Happy birthday,” says the Professor, and he pulls out a necklace he bought from an Indian vendor, a lovely string of turquoise and amber. I try to remember if any man besides my father has ever bought me a piece of jewelry. Aside from my first boyfriend in college, who gave me an opal pendant as a parting gift, I can’t recall any. I was outraged once when my friend Giovanna told me her husband had never bought her any jewelry during their entire marriage, with all the toys he bought for himself, and maybe I was so mad because mine didn’t, either. So this gift, at forty, is a delightful surprise. The Professor clasps it, hands warm, on my neck. “What do you wish for?”
So many things. I wish I could stay in Oaxaca, and be the lovers we used to be. I wish I could still fall in love, or even believe I could. I wish for great food, adventure, and soul-scorching sex. Maybe a child, still. I wish for it all.
“Romance and adventure,” I say. I do not say what I else I wish for, maybe what I wish for most, because it seems contrary to everything else, which is to be with one man or in one place, to have something settled in a life where nothing is settled.
“Do you think you can have both?” asks the Professor. “Who is the man who will let you roam around the world, meeting your old lovers?”
I shrug. “Maybe he’ll travel with me.”
“Good luck,” says the Professor, and he is sincere.
I twirl my glass between my fingers, sniff the smoky mescal, and wonder, as I always wonder, whether we will see each other again. I ask the Professor if he thinks we might travel together again.
“You never know,” he says. He reaches over and strokes my hand. “La vita è bella e lunga,” he says. Life is beautiful and long. We clink glasses.
After dinner, we go back to the hotel and snuggle together like contented old friends.
“Buenas noches,” I tell him, and he is already snoozing.
I can’t sleep. The moon is peeking through the wooden window frame and I wonder about my wishes, for romance and adventure. This man I have loved, off an on, is leaving tomorrow, and, as usual, I don’t know when or whether I’ll see him again. The men in my life are always like the countries I visit: I fall in love briefly, and then move on. I visit, regard the wonders, delve into the history, taste the cooking, peer into dark corners, feel a few moments of excitement and maybe ecstasy and bliss, and then, while I am often sad to leave–or stung that no one insisted I stay–I am on my way.
Here on a sultry night in a foreign country, with a man sleeping next to me, casually throwing his skinny leg over my soft one, I realize I don’t have someone whom I can call home. I wonder if it’s possible to have everything I wished for on my 40th birthday: adventure and romance, wanderlust and just plain lust.
I turn in the bed. Actually it isn’t exactly romance and lust that I wish for. Finding a fascinating and attractive man on the road, going from being perfect strangers to holding hands, sharing stories and bites of dessert, gazing into each other’s eyes over dinner and then stopping for a moment to stare at each other again in bed—that’s romance, that’s lust. That’s exciting and wonderful, but it’s all too brief, like vacation. Of course you can travel the world and find romance. What’s more elusive is real companionship, someone who’s always making the same dent on his side of the bed, who knows how you like your coffee in the morning. It’s much harder to find comfort and stability, to be held, to be secure in the knowledge that someone is taking care of you and even—old-fashioned as it sounds—protecting you.
You can’t grow old with someone, if you’re always off searching for new experiences. And I’m not getting any younger.
I roll over again, facing the Professor, who echoes my disturbance with a few deep, skidding snores. I’m restless and agitated. I face the Professor and then turn toward the wall; I don’t feel comfortable anywhere. My desires–to be free and to belong, to be independent and to be inextricably loved, to be in motion and to be still–pull me back and forth. The Professor sleeps soundly while I wrestle with the two sides of myself until I am worn out, and the moonlight dims, replaced by the cool light of dawn.