“A couple of decades ago, when I was right around the corner from turning 30, my life was falling apart. The woman I was in love with had just told me that she could never see me again, and my mother had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. In a nearly catatonic state of grief, I decided to jolt myself back to living by flying alone to Mexico for a week to try and get it together. I’ll never forget that my mother, who was always fully accessorized and made up, drove me to the airport in her bathrobe and didn’t say a word about me going by myself.
For my destination, I picked Veracruz because I was comforted by pictures I had seen online of couples my parents’ age dancing in the town square under the full moon. Also, there was the beach.
I would spend five days eating papaya and yogurt in the motel restaurant and going back up to my room to sob and sleep. At that point, I couldn’t imagine a future for myself. On the sixth day, my body and mind were so sore and dull from inactivity that I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I ventured out of my room for a walk.
I ended up in a residential neighborhood just as school was letting out. Hoards of kids in Catholic school uniforms flooded the cobblestone street, surrounding me as they ran in circles, teasing and grabbing at each other. When the sea of blue and black plaid jumpers parted, I found myself standing behind a wheel chair that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. The man sitting in the chair, grinned up at me and stuck out his hand. ‘My name’s Antony,’ he says with a thick Boston accent like a mafioso and when I look confused, having never met a Mexican man named Antony before he says, ‘They call me that up north cuz nobody can say Ovidio.’ ‘Ovid,’ I say. ‘He was a Roman poet who wrote this amazing long poem called the Metamorphoses.’ We agree that’s what I’ll call him. He has an electric smile.
Ovidio lived in Massachusetts for fifteen years and would still be there if he hadn’t been deported. ‘I was at this New Year’s eve party and had too many.’ He puts his thumb by his mouth and raises his pinky, shaking it. ‘You know what I mean. This guy he starts in with me so I stab him a little.’
I stop him here. ‘Ovidio, how can you stab someone a little?’
He says with an upturned lip, ‘He deserved it, man. I swear. So anyway, they sent me to court and found out my papers were fake and the judge tells me he’s sending my crippled butt back to where it came from. Didn’t give me first class or nothing, threw me down there with the luggage on La Migra Airlines.’ He looks up at me behind him, where I have fallen into place, pushing his chair. We laugh. We come out of the residential street and onto the Malecon, a long stretch of harbor with ocean glimmering in spaces between thatched roof stalls selling glorias, papaya, nieves and sincronizadas. I ask Ovidio what a sincronizada is and he doesn’t know. ‘How is it that you are Mexican and don’t know what a sincronizada is?’
He laughs. ‘I’m more American than you are, sweet pea.’
A man selling nieves in a stall yells, ‘Eh, Gordito,’ and I bristle and look at Ovidio to see if he is offended, but he just laughs. ‘In America if somebody yells out hey fatso,’ we’re like, ‘are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?’ With our fists up but here in Mexico, we just touch our stomachs and laugh and wave like it’s a compliment. We think this is so funny we decide to go around the Malecon yelling ‘Gordita’ at each other and taking pictures of ourselves doing this.
Across the sidewalk from the column I’m standing on in this picture, there was a man sitting on a bench, staring at his hands, looking very depressed. Ovidio says to me, ‘Look at that dude. You think he could smile just once.’ He says, ‘Go over and sit next to him,’ and I’m shaking my head fiercely, no way, when he yells, ‘Yo man! She wants to have her picture taken with you.’ I’m going to deny it, but then I decide what the hey. I climb off the column and walk over and sit next to the man. ‘Hey,’ Ovidio yells holding the camera up, ‘She told me she thinks you’re cute.’ The man looks up from his hands and smiles. Ovidio snaps the picture.
A man in blue Umbro shorts and sunglasses comes running up to us and asks us if we want to take a boat to the Island of Sacrificios. Ovidio looks at me skeptically. There’s no way to get the chair across the sand. The man says we can go over by the docks. They can lift him in the boat, chair and all. I say, ‘It’s up to you. It’s my treat if you want to go, but we can always do something else.’
‘Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll wait for you here,’ he says.
‘We could go to the Aquarium instead,’ I say.
‘No, no…let’s go..once in a lifetime, right?’ Then he turns to the guide and says, ‘You’re not going to botarme, are you?’ I’m not sure what botar means but I assume it is something like ‘drop my butt in the water.’ Rafa assures us this will not happen and we make our way to the docks.
Rafa and his partner lift the chair and Ovidio’s jaw is clinched. I look the other way until he is settled in the back of the boat while three perplexed Mexican business men on vacation eye us from seats on the prow. A man in a shabby hat paddles by in a wooden dinghy, pulling a bag of sandwiches out of a fishing bucket and signaling to us to buy one. ‘Would you look at this Popeye?’ Ovidio yells at me. ‘No, I mean, it’s great. Us Mexicans, we’re all entrepreneurs.’
The waves are rougher than I had imagined and I have flung my legs across his lap to keep the chair steady. We are both holding on tight and laughing so hard, I can’t tell if the salt stinging my eyes is from the ocean or tears. Ovidio points to the Mexican tourists, laughing and says over the pounding of the waves, ‘they…are..looking…at…us…like….we….are…..lunatics.’
Rafa takes us to a corral reef where we can swim with yellow fish with bright blue stripes. Ovidio hauls up out of his chair and launches himself off the side of the boat. ‘Whoa!’ I yell and race to the side with my arms out. He bobs up out of the water and says, ‘I told you I could swim.’ The three men are looking me in my black shorts and white shirt. It’s a long way from my hotel, but what the hey, I’ll dry. I am about to leap when I look down and see a tiny pair of sewing scissors, the kind you use to cut thread in the seat of Ovidio’s chair. I’m balancing on the side of boat, the silver glinting in the sun. ‘Hey, Ovidio, what’s this?’ I say holding up the scissors.
‘Oh that. That’s my shank.’
‘You weren’t kidding when you said you stabbed him a little were you?’ He’s grinning up at me like crazy. I drop the scissors and dive.
The water is calm now and little yellow fish are nibbling on us. He says like this he almost feels normal again. Like this he remembers how to dance.
By the time we get back to the Malecon, it’s dark. My hotel is far away and the church where Ovidio sleeps is even farther. I can’t believe that not one bus in this city is handicapped accessible. Not one. The sidewalks are crowded with people and it’s too hard to lift the chair at every curb so I push us onto the street. Traffic is bad and I am running, pushing his chair, squeezing in as close as I can get to parked cars. Buses like belching monsters scorch by us, throwing fumes and soot in our faces. A man passes us on a rusty bicycle pulling a tin wagon loaded with huge jars of pickled eggs. Three teenage boys almost wreck their car staring at us. We must have looked like we came out of fire.
When we finally make it to my hotel we are covered in grime. Ovidio tells me he can make it the rest of the way to the church by himself. I am leaving the next day and it turns out that he is also taking a bus to Mexico City tomorrow to find a coyote, someone to take him back across the border. I ask him how he had gotten over the first time. He says then he was just a boy and they had carried him but now he’s a man and it’s his responsibility to make his own way. We agree to meet the next day at the bus station at 10:30.
It’s 11:15 and he’s late. He does have to make it all the way here in his chair. Buses go to Mexico City from here every hour so I think I’ll give him a while, no hurry. The little girl sitting next to me is tugging on the plastic bottle of colored water her brother is hogging and begins to whine. Their grandmother pulls the bottle out of the boy’s grip and hands it to the little girl who sneers in triumph and then I see the back of the chair. ‘Ovidio!’ I yell and the girl imitates it yelling ‘Ovidio!’ in a high pitch voice, and her grandmother says, ‘Stop it.’ His clothes are filthy and the wheels of the chair are bent in at the rim and strung up with pieces of wire. ‘What happened?’
He tells me that last night he was robbed. He got back to the church past curfew and they wouldn’t let him in. He had to take his bag and sleep in the park. When he woke up this morning, his bag, the 200 pesos he had saved for the bus ticket to Mexico City, and his official documents were gone. And then, as if that weren’t bad enough, on the way here, he got clipped by a bus and his wheels are all messed up. I’m looking down at him and don’t know what to say. Some American voice inside me says ‘Here comes the scam,’ but another part of me, one that is sure of itself says, ‘He’s the same as you.’ I tell him that I’ll pay for his bus ticket, but he says he can’t go. He’s going to have to go all the way back down to Chiapas where he was born to get copies of his papers before he can go anywhere.
We go over to the bus side café and I make him order some food. A man in a torn shirt with lesions on his chest comes over and leans on Ovidio with his hand out, coughing. ‘Dang, man.’ Ovidio yells holding the man off him with an extended arm. ‘Cover your mouth.’ The man sticks his hand out towards him again and Ovidio says, ‘Why are you asking me for money man? Can’t you see I’m blind?’ and laughs. I give the man some money and he walks away. Ovidio says, concerned, ‘I think he’s sick or something, don’t you?’
‘Can’t get no SSI in this stinking country,’ he says and tells me when he lost his job answering phones at a middle school in Massachusetts, he had applied for disability but been denied. He could try again. He says, “You got to work the system, but here there ain’t no system to work.’ I ask him how he gets any money and he opens his hand and taps his palm. I look away.
At the bus gate, I wrap my fanny pack around his waist that I have stuck some money in and tell him to put it under his clothes. I grab his face and kiss him on the cheek. He looks up at me, surprised. ‘It isn’t my first kiss,’ he says and I say, ‘No, I didn’t think it would be.’ Then he starts fake crying really really loudly and yelling at the top of his lungs in English, ‘No! For the love of God please don’t leave me! I didn’t mean it! Please don’t go!!’ He grabs my arm and pulls himself towards me and buries his face in his hands, choking out long, wracking sobs. Everyone in the entire bus station is staring at us and he peeks through his fingers with a grin and says, ‘You know they think you’re heartless.’
I kiss him again and walk through the gate, smiling. When the bus pulls around the corner, I strain to see, but he is already gone.
When I am back at my house, I find the book in the basement and pull it off the dusty shelves. Ovid, The Metamorphoses. These are the first lines:
My intention is to tell of bodies changed
To different forms. The gods who made the changes
Will help me or so I hope with a poem
That runs from the world’s beginning to our own days.”
Coordinator of Refugee Ministries