I heard the distinct sound of a sniffle as I looked up and saw a naked woman climb onto a cluttered desk. The noise was soft and low and definitely not coming from the Dolby speakers mounted on the walls of the movie theater.
How strange, I thought, watching a man reach for the well-endowed woman, who towered above me larger than life. Even on film, with the camera’s ten extra pounds strapped to her body, her frame was flawless, her flowing hair poised for a Clairol commercial.
A few minutes before, the woman, dressed in a trench coat and black stiletto heels, had entered a seemingly deserted office building. She sauntered among the empty cubicles and workstations, until she found the man working alone in a dark corner. Flashing a mischievous smile, she disrobed before him, and us.
Now atop the desk she pulled her lover close, initiating a passionate kiss, wrapping her legs around his waist. As the couple sprawled across piles of paperwork, a heart-felt moan pierced my ears.
I looked around, listening to the inhalation of faint whimpers. Eyeing my neighbors with suspicion, I saw their faces fixated on the screen, with one exception—the man in my life. He was slouched in his seat, his head bent forward, his arms raised to block his view.
“What’s wrong?” I asked John, staring at his covered face. He continued to whimper, ignoring my words.
I urged him to tell me what the problem was even though the audience shushed my pleas.
Onscreen the couple expressed the delight of their fiery embrace, but the distracting sounds beside me drowned out their non-verbal dialogue.
“That’s her. That’s Hortensia,” John finally uttered. “And that’s me; that’s exactly what she did to me.”
John sucked his breath in hard, trying to stop his outpour of grief and surprise.
“That’s her? That’s your ex?” I hissed softly, watching Hortensia’s lush head of hair fall off the edge of the desk, her breasts pointing upward in a most unnatural manner. “You brought me here to see this?”
I had endured seeing former loves of current boyfriends, pretty and polite, across a crowded room, or with a casual smile at a chance meeting. I had even encountered the “other woman” as I hid behind the door of a bathroom stall, but never had I seen a man’s former lover in all her glory, showing me her most intimate moves with firm thighs and an expert wax job.
John’s tears interrupted my thoughts, hushing my anger and suppressing my rage. My only goal at that moment was to quiet him in the crowded theater. When I whispered, “Maybe we should leave,” John insisted we stay. He needed to see if any other part of their relationship had been a dress rehearsal for her performance.
I slid down into my seat, not knowing what else to do. Instead of adding to the drama, I grabbed our shared bag of popcorn and munched furiously throughout the movie.
I was in Mexico City, visiting John from my home in San Miguel de Allende, three hours north of the nation’s capitol. We had met on the dance floor of a popular club and now alternated our weekends between our two adopted homes.
John, an international lawyer originally from Quebec, was trilingual and worldly. His intellect was refreshing, but more important, at least for me, was his knowledge of 1970s sitcoms. Having been immersed in Mexican life for the past few years, I was thrilled to meet a man who had harbored a crush on Marcia Brady while sporting a pair of pucca beads just like Keith Partridge. John understood my American idiosyncrasies and life, for a change, seemed easy.
There were no misunderstandings of language or culture. I could say what I meant and he understood the words for their true meaning. Having a relationship in a foreign tongue is no easy task. Add literal miscommunication to the pile of potential problems and it’s a labor-intensive endeavor. However, now, I could speak fast-paced English with colloquialisms and slang, throwing in the occasional euphemism, and I was still understood.
I enjoyed spending time in the big city, going to museums and favorite restaurants, wandering the streets of la Condesa and la Roma, neighborhoods with Parisian-style, turn of the century buildings and quaint cafés.
That morning, when John announced he wanted to go to the movies, I replied that there were more interesting things to do. But he insisted, saying his heart was set on a particular film. He didn’t mention that it required an extensive ride on the subway, two bus rides, and a vigorous walk through the hot concrete streets.
Crossing one of the world’s largest cities was not simple. With a population of more than 25 million, the sprawl was immense, the distance long and tiring. When we arrived at the theater I was covered in sweat and fantasizing about a luxurious dose of air conditioning.
“This movie better be worth it,” I teased John. “I need to see something spectacular to make up for what we just endured.”
And I did.
I saw Hortensia’s perfectly formed body; the image deflating my ego forever.
I had no idea she was a movie star. John had left that part out. He had mentioned her plays and the occasional TV appearance, but never once did he talk about a major motion picture.
* * *
Hortensia and John had had an affair the year before. He had been single and mesmerized with her beauty; she had been married and cheating on her famous movie director husband.
I had heard more than enough details about their relationship, especially how Hortensia had agreed to leave her marriage. John had waited patiently, sitting in the back row of her performances, planning clandestine meetings until they could be together.
After months of broken promises, John gave her an ultimatum. With tears in her eyes, Hortensia finally admitted that she would never leave her husband. He held the key to her career and walking away from her dream was too big a price to pay for any man.
They had parted as friends and I had thought that was the end of the story, until we went to the movies. After that Hortensia became part of our life.
She started calling my home, knowing exactly where to find John. In an innocent voice, she would ask to speak with her former lover. He always took the phone without hesitation and cooed over her words on the other end.
“I don’t want her calling here anymore,” I finally said one day.
“You don’t understand. She’s having a hard time and I’m just trying to help,” John insisted. “There’s no one else she can talk to.”
“Really? She has no other friends?” I asked, reaching for my box of Xanax to quiet the throbbing pain in my stomach. My new medical condition had roared its evil head a few months before, just about the time of Hortensia’s big scene debut.
“She’s a famous actress, she can’t divulge her secrets to just anyone,” John said seriously.
Interesting that he actually believes her, I thought. I didn’t utter a word, though, choosing instead to silently fight off the ugly creature called jealousy.
Born and bred in the South, I falsely believed I was not allowed to make a scene or express my discontentment with a relationship. If I had been told these were the ways of a lady, I don’t remember, but I nevertheless adhered to the silent rules of “proper conduct.” Besides, I was flexing my open mind, as well as trying to conquer another demon named envy–for I desperately wanted Hortensia’s hair, probably more than the man.
The following month John asked me to accompany him to Canada to meet his family and friends. It was a nice thought, but my enthusiasm for the trip was more about sampling rich sauces and flaky croissants.
I agreed. Then began to save every peso I could for the plane fare.
It was not an easy task.
* * *
The old town was as I had imagined, cobblestone streets with touches of Paris around every corner. Quaint alleyways and flower boxes softened the stone buildings, adding a touch of European sophistication. I marveled at the foreign feel of the place, happy I had come along with John. Even though it was the height of summer, the cool breezes reminded me of Mexico at the end of winter.
John and I spent our first evening in Quebec City with his friends, dining on oysters and Belgian beer with a hearty plate of pommes frites between us, a good portion of mayonnaise by its side. A much better alternative to ketchup, I thought, dipping a fried potato into the luxurious mixture generously sprinkled with black pepper.
The city’s winding pathways and picturesque river, with the looming presence of Chateau Frontenac, were a romantic backdrop for any couple; however, John kept his distance as we walked to our appointed accommodations: his former roommate’s living room and a futon sofa.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” John uttered softly, his eyes fixated on the floor of our makeshift room. He was sitting on a chair, fumbling with the edges of a tasseled pillow, caressing its long, thin threads.
His voice quivered when he said, “Hortensia’s leaving her husband.”
John’s uncomfortable demeanor told me everything I needed to know, but the least he could do was articulate the words and go through the motions of regret.
“I’m going back to her,” he declared, his eyes never meeting mine.
I had only been in Quebec for eight hours, having spent the weekend with John in New York City on an extended layover. When he admitted he had never been to one of the world’s most exciting destinations, I made plans for us to stay with friends and show him the sights.
“So, how long have you known about this?” I asked, wondering why he chose this exact moment to break the news and not before the dinner I treated him to in the West Village.
“A few weeks, but I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“So you brought me to Canada, to meet your family?”
“Well, I thought if I was surrounded by friends I would gain the strength to tell you the truth. I needed their support,” John said, his voice growing lower, his grasp on the pillow tightening.
“So, everyone at dinner knew you brought me here to break up with me?” I questioned, not believing I was the last person to know I no longer had a boyfriend. No wonder they had been so friendly and sweet, smiling awkwardly in my direction, patting my arm.
“I’m sorry.” John said, finally lifting his head and looking toward me. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to continue the trip. I’ll take you back to the airport tomorrow.”
“Airport? You think I’m going home with my tail between my legs after spending all my money on a plane ticket to Canada?”
John looked at me with surprise. Obviously, he had thought ditching me would be a simple task—break the news, say I’m sorry, and then put me on a plane with only one plate of perfect fries under my belt. He didn’t even attempt to bribe me with a parting gift—preferably a basket of raspberry-dotted pastries and miniature bottles of real maple syrup.
“You’re not dumping me until the trip is over,” I informed him, finally realizing for the first time in my life I didn’t always have to be understanding and give into everyone else’s desires. “I’m staying and we’re doing everything as planned. I want to see the lakes, the cities, enjoy the culture, and eat really good food. It’s the least you can do.”
I didn’t sleep well that night knowing I had been ambushed at my own expense. I grew angry, wondering if Hortensia had plotted the dramatic ending, making herself a guest star in my season’s finale. How dare she, I thought, tossing and turning on the stiff futon. I’ll show them. I’ll win over every one of John’s friends and make his parents love me, all while eating double desserts and enormous amounts of tree sap.
I began my new life the next morning, gaining strength from my anger and the knowledge that John had tried to deny me the pleasure of superior butter, cream, and cheese, not to mention the opportunity to taste poutine and feves au lard, the hearty mainstays of the Quebecois kitchen.
Laughing with his friends in the street the next day, I leaned over and whispered “coward.” He was speechless, staring at me with shock and disbelief. I smiled, enjoying the exchange, then stood taller than any other time during our relationship. We had always been the same height, but not anymore.
That night at dinner, sitting at a cozy table for two, John ordered a commonplace croque monsieur, a hot ham and cheese sandwich. He ate and lived simply, preferring to save his money for his upcoming move into a large apartment in a chic neighborhood, an area that was coincidentally home to the stars of Mexico’s film industry. Studying the menu, it finally occurred to me that he wasn’t moving closer to work as stated, but planning to house a homeless movie star.
“I’ll have the trout in almond-apple cider,” I told the waiter, “along with a glass of your best white wine.”
“I thought you didn’t have a lot of money with you.” John said, referring to my pricey request.
“I don’t, but you do,” I pronounced, tired of splitting the check with a man who made four to five times more than I did. I had agreed to the modern North American way of dating as his girlfriend. But now, as his ex, living in a Latin country, where a woman never foots the bill, I expected to be wined and dined. I enjoyed my dessert of mousse au chocolat so much, its satiny texture and intense flavor filling me with comfort, that I ordered a second.
“And I’d love an after dinner cognac,” I told the waiter, complimenting his excellent service, assuring him a large tip from the man seated across from me.
“You don’t drink cognac,” John scowled, shaking his head.
“True, I didn’t,” I said, flashing a naughty smile at the waiter, “but I’ve decided to start treating myself to the better things in life.”
The next day John’s parents picked us up and we drove into the countryside, heading toward their summer cottage, a small cabin on an idyllic lake. We stopped along the way for a plate, or rather a cardboard box, of poutine, served from a trailer parked in the middle of nowhere. The French fries, covered in gravy and cheese curds were interesting, something to enjoy if they had been part of your childhood, but I was a loyal fan of the Belgian mayonnaise tradition for fried potatoes.
John’s parents eyed me with what I now recognized as pity and proceeded to shower me with attention and activities. It was cold at the cottage, so while the others, who obviously possessed thicker blood, swam in the freezing water, I stayed snuggled against a pot-bellied stove.
Wonderful meals accompanied our days. John’s mother was an excellent cook and we bonded over recipes and techniques, seasonal strawberries and homemade cakes. I was enjoying my foray into Quebecois cuisine, as well as mastering the art of passive-aggressive behavior. Words like “whimp” and “sissy boy” flew out of my mouth; sentences such as “Do you need your friend’s support in order to tell me where the bathroom is?” began our conversations.
John called me cruel and I registered the sadness on his face with a contented smile. I could drink wine again and eat greasy food–my stomach pain had gone away, just like the famous movie director.
I realized over a plate of wild fiddleheads, boiled and drizzled with butter, that I had been burdened with the “good girl syndrome” my entire life. I imagined it as a mental illness most likely found in a Freudian textbook. Passive, quiet, and sweet was a role I played well, but I was now ready to break the old patterns, speak my mind, and express my anger, even if it meant behaving in an unladylike fashion.
“So, you’re telling me Hortensia doesn’t know I’m here with you?” I laughed, reveling in the beauty of our dysfunctional three-way relationship. “What? You didn’t have the courage to tell her either? Maybe you should bring her here, to Canada, in order to break the news.”
“You don’t understand, she’s very sensitive,” John stammered, miserable in my company. “She’s an artist.”
“Oh, she’s an artist,” I mocked, enjoying another day in the country. “I’m sorry, I honestly thought after I saw her work that she was a porn star. My mistake.”
We traveled to Montreal and climbed to the highest point, snacking on the local cousin of the New York bagel. I tried tarte au sucre, a pie similar to pecan, but without the nuts, following it with an almond croissant and second cup of cappuccino. Sated and content, with no need for a Tums, I passed John the bill.
“I have to save my money for the apartment,” he pleaded, pushing the small piece of paper back toward me.
“Get Hortensia to pay half,” I said, an honest smile brightening my face. “I’m sure she made a lot of money stripping before millions of people, straddling a desk with piles of paper poking her ass, wrapping her thighs around a hunky actor, flinging her head back and then screaming in delight as he…”
* * *
Two weeks and ten pounds later I returned home to Mexico, alone. Hortensia had my man, as well as a perfect body, flowing hair and the intimate knowledge of seduction, qualities I had envied, but now I possessed something much better—my own true voice.