by Nathaniel Kennon Perkins
It’d been almost ten years since I’d seen my friend Adam. I didn’t even know that he’d gotten married. We’d casually kept in touch through the Internet, but the last physical space we’d occupied together had been his stoner-ass bachelor pad in San José, Costa Rica. Come to think of it, that was right after I had gotten married. That’s how long ago it was. My new future ex-wife and I had been on the front end of a five-month honeymoon, backpacking through Central America. As a wedding present, Adam had taken us to see Judas Priest play at the National Stadium.
After such a lapse, I’m not sure he believed me when I threatened to come to Mexico City, where he was now living. Then I bought a plane ticket. I was staying for a month. I can imagine him looking at his email inbox and gulping, cartoonishly pulling at his collar, thinking about how he would explain my intrusion to his wife.
When the date came, I flew from Denver to CDMX. A seven-dollar Uber took me the 45 minutes to Colonia Condesa, where he lived in a beautiful apartment above a salon called Sexy Nails. His place was decorated with Mexican folk art and a poster that read “Feminismo. Es la idea radical que sostiene que las mujeres son personas” — Feminism: the radical idea that women are people. His wife, Isabella, was just what I’d expected: also a journalist, Latina (Mexican, originally from Monterrey), beautiful, successful. Adam and I, despite our years spent living in Latin America, could never hope to speak Spanish as well as she spoke English. I liked her immediately.
“Are you excited for your month here?” she asked.
I tried to read the question for a layer of passive aggression. Was she annoyed that I was here? Annoyed that her husband had agreed to let his crusty former roommate and colleague invade their space for the duration of what a full rent check bought? No, I decided. She was being sincere.
I told her that I was, in fact, quite pleased. I needed a break from being in the States, specifically in Colorado. I needed some time away from my friends and my job and all the stress that came from living in an expensive American city, though ultimately the main purpose of this quest for time and space was to finish a draft of a screenplay I’d been thinking about for years, a historical horror piece set in the state of New Mexico. Also an aspiring screenwriter, Isabella wished me luck.
It was late, so Adam offered to show me to my room. We climbed another four flights of stairs and emerged onto the roof of the building, huffing and puffing. He was renting a tiny room up there in addition to the apartment below. I imagine that its original intended purpose was that of a storage shed. While it did hold some of Adam’s extra suitcases and books, he had it set up as an office. It was the refuge of a freelance journalist. There was a desk, a futon, two chairs, and a small table with a mini-fridge and electric kettle on it. A small sink, not big enough even to hold a gallon of water, was mounted to one wall. The door locked. There was an electrical outlet. The bathroom was separate, maybe 20 feet away, a wet walk if it was raining. The room couldn’t have been any larger than ten by 12 feet.
“Will this work?” he asked.
It was absolutely ideal. I told him so.
It wasn’t until I woke the next morning at dawn, needing to pee out the several bottles of beer that I’d found in the mini-fridge, that I took in the view from the rooftop. A mango tree overhung my front door. I could see over part of the city and, if I squinted just right, to the mountains at the end far end of Valley of Mexico. I was now one of 20 million people dwelling on the dried up bed of Lake Texcoco. I felt freer than I had in a long while.
An essential aspect to true freedom is the option to sleep in, of course, so I went back to bed for a few hours. I savored it. Once I finally got my ass moving and out the door, I walked around and found a little feria of vendors’ tents, offering clothes, bootleg CDs and DVDs, tacos, produce, meat, fish. A whole shark lay on one table, its tail hanging off the side. I felt overwhelmed by the crowds and intimidated by how rusty my Spanish had grown, so I kept moving until I found a small restaurant where I could sit down with some elbowroom, and I ordered food there. Green chili chilaquiles with an entire steak on top, sliced papaya, orange juice, bread, coffee, all for 70 pesos, or about $3.50 US. I was astounded. You really could live as a writer here. This was the kind of place I’d dreamed about and spent years searching for. I’d thought Berlin was the place for a while, until it became apparent that residency papers were nearly impossible to get. Then, I’d thought Kansas City, Missouri might work. There were a bunch of punks and artists there, and you could buy a house for under $30,000 if you didn’t mind falling asleep to the lullaby of gunshots or navigating the local culture of never having a sober minute ever again in your life. CDMX seemed preferable in every way.
I spent the afternoon in the upstairs room with the door and window open, a visiting breeze, the sounds of the city drifting from the streets: barking dogs, sirens, and Oaxacan-style tamale salesman. Staring at my computer screen, I felt unqualified to write the project I had come here to compose. I’d written my fair share of newspaper articles and music reviews. I’d published two books of fiction: a novella and a story collection. I’d written essays and the occasional unpublishable poem, but everything that this screenplay was was so far removed from my body of work that it gave me serious anxiety. I’d never written a script, I’d never written a genre piece, and I’d never had to do such extensive research. The concept was solid though, and I couldn’t put it off any longer for fear of losing it. I had to at least try, despite my reservations. Maybe I hadn’t gone to film school, but I was convinced that you could learn anything from reading enough and making the right mistakes and asking enough questions of people who actually did know.
I got a few pages done, and then I turned to “research.” This meant that I watched back-to-back horror movies and drank a mix of tequila and Squirt until I fell asleep.
A cold shower the next morning (there was no other temperature option) got me going. I wandered out to find a cure for my hangover, my dehydration. Condesa, it seemed to me, was an easy place to be, if you had the money for it, which didn’t turn out to be that much by the rest of North American and Western European standards. After the first 24 hours of geographical shock had worn off, the beautiful Art Deco buildings and shade-strewn streets existed in direct opposition to my anxieties. If there’s anything that can dampen the lust for experience, it’s the disquiet of learning to navigate a new place, of having to figure out transportation and language and how to feed yourself. But I found that none of these things was an impediment. I had no need for transportation; I was walking. I already spoke the language; it was coming back quickly. And food? Mexico City is a city of food. It was everywhere. I felt at home. I walked into a restaurant and sat down.
I had a tattoo on my right arm, too dramatic, that I’d gotten several years ago, a few weeks after getting divorced. I’d been meaning to get it covered up. It was supposed to be a skull, but people often mistook it for any number of other things: a cartoon speech bubble, a volcano, a human heart. Underneath, it read, “Life is War.” Dumb. I don’t think it will be a surprise to hear that I’d been awfully drunk when I’d gotten it. Surely life had been war, and I suspected it someday again would be war, but it sure didn’t feel like war at the moment. Before sitting down to breakfast I’d practically been skipping down the cracked and uneven sidewalks, giggling as the sun shone through the trees and onto my face. Life isn’t war, I thought. Life is breakfast. That day, life was two cups of coffee, two glasses of orange-carrot juice, bread, and three mini-burritos (refried beans, chorizo, huevo) served with fresh guacamole. Five bucks.
I started making plans in my head: go back to Colorado, save a little money, get certified to teach English as a second language, start looking for an apartment in CDMX. If only it were that easy. One problem with moving here was that my girlfriend was finishing school in Colorado, and she had about a year and a half to go. She didn’t speak Spanish, and she didn’t know anybody in Mexico. I wasn’t going to leave her behind, but how would I convince her to come with?
I wrote for a couple hours then met up with Adam at a Mezcal bar for a literal pregame. Cruz Azul vs. Club América, a rivalry match. Adam’s friend, Vic, was an Irishman living in the city, working for the World Bank. He and two of his visiting friends were going to meet us at Estadio Azteca, one of the largest and most iconic soccer stadiums in the world. Adam and I had a few drinks. We ate habas and chapulines—roasted fava beans and grasshoppers—both with lime squeezed over the top, served in ceramic bowls.
It was a 45 minute Uber ride, and we passed the time by telling stories about the so-called good old days, the brief period that we were both in San José, Costa Rica, writing for an English-Language newspaper called the Tico Times. We talked about how fun and easy it was to be a journalist in Costa Rica, about how every weekend some hotel would pay for us to come out and stay, wining us and dining us and taking us to the beach in an effort to draw out a positive review. I talked about the time that I had gotten drunk on beer and champagne with the presidential candidate for Costa Rica’s Libertarian Party in the German Embassy. Adam recalled the night of my 23rd birthday, how we’d gone with a group of our friends and colleagues to my favorite bar (Rayuela, named after the Julio Cortázar novel) and made drunken, stoned fools of ourselves, eventually climbing on top of the bar and dancing to “Last Christmas” by Wham!, which, to the dismay of the bar’s other patrons and staff, we’d set the jukebox to play maybe 12 times in a row.
The nostalgia made me smile, but I knew that it hadn’t been all partying. I’d covered some seriously fucked up stories while I was in Costa Rica, brutal enough to dispel the fog of Hunter S. Thompson-influenced romanticism I had previously draped over the idea of being an international journalist. I quit, went back to school, focused on writing fiction. Adam, on the other hand, had stuck with it, had pushed through and made a nice little career for himself. Since we’d last worked together, he’d gotten a job in Costa Rica for Bloomberg News. Then came the promotion to the new position of Energy Reporter, and with it the move to Mexico City. This was a step up from San José for sure. Nobody had really cared about what was happening in sleepy, gringo-infested San José, but now he was in the cultural and business center of Latin America, the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere. He was making it, earning an American-sized salary in a city where $2,000 a month let you live like a goddamned king. He’d had a penthouse apartment in the financial district for a while, before he moved in with Isabella. But then, he’d quit the job and started focusing on freelancing, writing intensely researched, deep-dive investigative stories that weren’t just clips about the natural gas companies’ share prices. In the taxi, he told me about the time he’d met with and interviewed Chapo Guzman’s lawyers in a crowded bar.
“The good thing is,” he said, “that never has a foreign journalist been killed in Mexico.”
Adam isn’t a bragger. I’m just an envier. By the time we got to Estadio Azteca, I was good and jealous. I wanted his life. Maybe not the reporting gigs specifically, but the money and the apartment and to share it with my girlfriend.
The scene outside the stadium jolted me out of this covetous melancholy. It was one of the craziest spectacles of mass humanity I’ve ever seen—hundreds of vendors’ tents that stretched on for a half a mile outside the stadium entrance—people selling beer, candy, tacos, popcorn, jerseys, hats, umbrellas, ice cream, elotes, you name it. Adam and I each got a michelada, an iced, limed beer with gummy-sweet chili sauce around the rim of the plastic cup. We walked around trying to take it all in. I paid a guy ten pesos to let me hold an eagle he had brought with him on a leash.
Adam’s friend Vic showed up with a couple other Irishmen in tow, loveable guys all of them. We made our way inside the stadium just in time for the kickoff. I was the only one in the group, likely the only person in a 50-mile radius, who didn’t know anything about soccer. Adam had played for Texas Christian University’s team in his college years and then had worked as a sports journalist in Dallas. The Irishmen were, well, Irishmen. But our seats were right behind one of the goals, and it was fun to drink just an insane amount of beer and scream along with the crowd. “Eeeeeeyyyyyyy… PUTO!” The game was exciting. Cruz Azul, the underdogs, won 5-2.
Once the match was over, the entire crowd funneled out in a should-to-shoulder, balls-to-ass bottleneck. I kept my hands over my pockets and emerged into the vendors’ area still in possession of my wallet and phone. Patrick, one of the Irishmen, wasn’t so lucky. He took the pocket picking with surprising calm and grace.
We decided to wait out the crowd and drink Micheladas, taking turns buying them for Patrick. We soon befriended some of the vendors. We hung out with them for almost two hours, shouting and laughing in drunken Spanglish and buying each other drinks. By the time we got in a car headed back to Colonia Condesa, we’d consumed well over a gallon of beer each. I didn’t want to know how much, exactly, but it must have been a lot because almost the moment we got out of the car Adam yacked all over sidewalk. Eight years ago, there would have been no way I could out-drink him. In fact, the scenario had many times been reversed. I had thrown up in front of Adam more times than I could remember. But now I was here, keeping up with the Irishmen. We managed to talk Adam into having just one more drink at the Mezcal bar. Of course, one drink turned into three, and at some point Adam tossed some pesos on the table and staggered out. I stayed for a while, but soon we all went our separate ways. It was almost four in the morning when I collapsed on my futon.
The next morning was rough. I stayed in bed until 1:00 pm, getting up only to guzzle bottled water and pee into the sink. Finally, I met Adam at a nearby coffee shop called “Boicot.”
He looked as bad as I felt.
“Holy shit, is Isabella upset with me,” he said.
It wasn’t the drinking or the staying out late that had pissed her off. It was that when he’d finally gotten home, clearly wasted, he’d told her that he’d only had a couple of beers. She was mad at him for lying. Fair enough.
“I’ve had to eat a lot of shit today,” he said.
“It’s worth it though, isn’t it?”
Of course, I meant that being in a relationship with someone you love is worth having to eat shit from time to time, but I hadn’t made myself clear. He’d misunderstood what I was saying, thinking I meant that getting yelled at by his wife was worth it to be able to go out and get tanked on a Saturday night.
“I don’t know if it is.”
We sat and ate molletes, drank cup after cup of cold-brew coffee, worked on our separate writing projects. I pounded out a surprising number of pages, considering how awful I felt.
His phone buzzed. He looked at it.
“I’ve gotta go,” he said. “See you later, güey.”
“I’ll walk out with you,” I said.
At the door, he went one way, and I went the other.
Librería Ático wasn’t the closest bookstore to where I was, but I wouldn’t figure this out until later, when I got to know the neighborhood a little better. However, it was the closest bookstore that showed up on Google Maps, in Roma Norte, maybe 16 or 20 blocks away. I kept to quiet, residential streets as much as possible, looking at all the trees and terrace gardens and the stylized geometrical designs on the houses’ facades. About every block or two, some building was being gutted and remodeled. Luxury condos were going in everywhere. I couldn’t say that this surprised me. I remembered how in 2009 or 2010, all the artists and punks I knew were talking about Berlin as this sort of weirdo utopia. It was as cheap as it was cosmopolitan, they said. You could survive by selling short stories and working a couple bar shifts a week. And that was how young Americans who were inclined in an artistic direction were talking about CDMX now. Mexico was closer and even cheaper. Plus, there was the other advantage: Mexico’s immigration laws were much more lax than Germany’s.
As far as I knew, none of this most recent generation of dreamers had pulled the trigger on it yet. Nobody had made the move. They were just hanging out at parties and in coffee shops in the U.S., talking about it.
I’d told this to Adam the day before, and he’d said, “Just wait until there’s another earthquake. Then they’ll all change their minds.”
But wasn’t it the last earthquake that had torn down the old buildings and created the opening for this quickened pace of gentrification in the first place? No one would be deterred. Young, artsy Americans weren’t scared of earthquakes. They had no comprehension of earthquakes. Nobody they had ever known had died in an earthquake. They were scared of student debt. They were scared of mass shootings. They were scared of not having healthcare. Even living in Condesa, one of the wealthier neighborhoods in this unfathomably huge city, was more financially viable than rotting away in even the furthest suburban depths of, say, Denver or Seattle or Austin or Chicago. Plus, there was history and food and art and culture. It never snowed. When I thought about it, I knew that I would choose dying in an earthquake over dying while working in a coffee shop or dying in the basement bedroom of a house that had seven other people living in it. Who gave a fuck about earthquakes?
Librería Ático was your basic used bookstore, not huge, but bigger than some, with long rows of shelves that reached almost to the 12-foot ceiling. I wandered the aisles and gained a feel for the place. I was looking for a copy of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. I’d never read it.
But I was having a hard time concentrating. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the loud conversation the two employees were having. Perhaps they assumed that I didn’t speak Spanish. They were young women, both in their early twenties. They had the bookseller look to them: oversized ugly sweaters, thick plastic-framed glasses, cute, nerdy, obviously educated or in the process of becoming educated. It wasn’t the first time in their lives that they’d dealt with shitty men, but it was the first time that they were experiencing such shitty men on such an intimate level. Boyfriends who hit them, who dragged them into the street to scream and yell and fight. It made me sick to listen to their stories
“You’re never going to change him,” said one to the other while I lurked out of sight. “You know that, right?”
“I feel like I just have to try,” the other replied. “I don’t know. It’s just who I am.”
Sadly, this was a common story in Mexico City. Just a couple months earlier, hundreds of protestors, mostly women, had taken to the streets to demonstrate against the government, specifically the police, who had been accused of raping two teenage girls in two separate incidents. The masked women had thrown pink glitter on politicians, smashed glass, left a pig’s head on the doorstep of the City Prosecutor’s office, and ultimately written graffiti on the Angel of Independence, the iconic monument just blocks from the United States Embassy. Of course, they were derided as extremists, but in my estimation no response could have been too radical. What was actually extreme was a state in which police got away with raping teenage girls. Since then, billboards had been put up all over town, trying to educate people about gender-based violence. Still, Human Rights Watch reported that “Mexican laws do not adequately protect women and girls against domestic and sexual violence” and they “contradict international standards.”
Human rights violations in Mexico were what you heard about in the United States, things like rape, corruption, military abuses, drug cartels, torture, and disappearances. Those things were real, but it was easy to recognize them as exaggerated in a world in which every other news story was also cultivated to be over the top. A few years ago I’d crossed the border into Ciudad Juarez on foot at El Paso. I’d had a pleasant, safe time, despite the machine gun battles and explosions I’d seen in movies like Sicario. While traveling, you try to see a place for the beauty of it; you try to see the good. It exists. It’s there to see, but I was being reminded that you couldn’t forget the fuckedupness of a place either. You couldn’t over-romanticize.
Finally, I got the courage to interrupt the two young women and ask if they had a copy of the book I was looking for. They didn’t. I snagged a battered copy of the first English-language novel I came across, The Place of Dead Roads by William Burroughs. They charged me ten bucks for it. It was more than I would have paid for it in the States. I grumbled internally, but the fact of the matter was that I wasn’t in the States. I was in Mexico, and I needed something to read.
It wasn’t until I stepped out the door and back into the street that something occurred to me. It was right around here somewhere that the author of the book I held in my hand used to live. Some quick googling gave me the address: Monterrey 122, just four blocks away.
From the street, you wouldn’t think the place was anything special. It was just a regular-ass apartment above a mediocre-seeming restaurant, but I stood out front and took a selfie anyway, a photo of myself looking serious and holding my new book. Proof that I had done it. I had stood 25 feet away from the spot where great works of literature were conceived and written. It was also the place where, in 1951, Burroughs, himself a perpetrator of violence against women, had put a bullet through Jean Vollmer’s head in a drunken game of William Tell.
Someone was knocking on a window behind me, trying to get my attention. A fat, bald man in his sixties mouthed the word “Burroughs” through the glass and then said something I couldn’t understand. I walked into the restaurant. He was the owner of the place. He stood to meet me. He pointed to a framed photo on the wall, a black and white shot of Burroughs and his second wife sitting at a table with drinks in front of them.
“That was here, back when this was Bounty Bar.”
He pointed to another picture on the opposite wall.
Burroughs’s mug shot.
I thought I might as well sit down to eat. I told him so, and he said something I couldn’t understand, so I just nodded. The first course the man brought me was a thin beef-broth soup with hard chunks of calabaza in it.
I started to read while I ate, and I recognized the novel’s first scene: the murder of the would-be gunfighters in the Boulder Cemetery. I’d bought a book I already owned.
The second course (was this the main course now? How many courses were there? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t going to ask) was a plate of watery macaroni and cheese. I tried to imagine Bill Burroughs and Jean Vollmer and Jack Kerouac in this place, but I couldn’t. It seemed like another world, still as far away as when I had first read about these people as a teenager in my bedroom in Provo, Utah.
Then, yes! There was a third course. Good. But when he set the plate down in front of me, I saw a milanesa pounded so flat that it almost wasn’t even there.
About the Author:
Nathaniel Kennon Perkins lives in Boulder, CO, where he works as a bookseller and publisher. He is the author of the short story collection The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019), and the short novel Cactus (Trident Press, 2018). His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, Noncanon Press, American West, decomP magazinE, Pithead Chapel, Timber Journal, and others. He is the recipient of the the High Country News’s 2014 Bell Prize.
Photograph by eneko muruzabal elezcano via Flickr (cc).