Strangers in Paradise – a coming of age tale set in the late 60s. Joan Adair has the naïve faith of a born romantic. When she falls for a talented young musician, Diego, on a family vacation in Mexico, she’s confident she can make this charming stranger love her, and she wheedles her parents into bringing Diego home so he can get a better education.
My little sister Bess found the key to my diary, broke in and read it. I tried to snatch my diary from her grubby paws, but she was fast for a fat kid. She rushed to the bathroom and locked herself in. Then she started reading from my diary at the top of her lungs:
“Last night was pure heaven. J.L. took me for a ride in his new Mustang. We went out to the river and parked under a big old cottonwood. The night was soft and warm, but I was shivering with excitement. JL turned to me and traced my lips with his fingers. “Joan,” he whispered, “I’ve never felt like this before about any woman…”
I pounded on the bathroom door, trying to break down the door or at least make enough noise to drown out her sarcastic reading.
“We kissed so deeply I got dizzy and sank back against the plush leather seat. I pulled his face down to meet my lips and his warm, strong hand slipped inside my blouse. Gently, but passionately, his supple fingers found their way to my….”
Bess stopped reading and yelled, “Oh here comes the nasty part!”
“I’m gonna wring your fat neck if you don’t stop now!”
Then, the voice I was dreading. “What’s going on?” Mom called from the living room.
Bess hollered, “Mom, Joanie’s gone all the way!”
Mom was coming down the hall. I said to Bess, “I’m gonna tell everyone what a rat fink you are.”
“And I’m gonna tell everyone you’re a slut.”
Mom came up behind me and I told her Bess stole my diary. Mom went to the bathroom door and said, “Bess, give it back to her.”
“She did a bad thing. It’s right here in her diary.”
Mom looked at me, her eyebrows raised. She had a smudge of turquoise oil paint on her forehead. She said to Bess, “It’s still none of your business, Bess. Give it back to her.”
Bess said, “Mom stay there or she’ll hurt me.”
“I’m right here.” She sighed impatiently; all she wanted was to be back at her easel.
Bess unlocked the bathroom door. I shoved it open and grabbed my diary from her.
“Mom,” Bess said in a hurt tone, “Joanie went all the way with a guy.”
“All the way?” Mom looked confused and frowned. “You mean…?”
“She’s a fat liar!” I escaped to our bedroom and locked the door. Threw myself down on my bed and opened my diary to where Blabbermouth Bess had been reading. Her grubby paws had left dirt stains on the pages. I smoothed them out and read what I’d written yesterday:
“Gently, but passionately, his supple fingers found their way to my breasts. The instant he touches me, I feel like I’m on fire. I press my body against his. “Take me,” I moan, “I’m yours, take me….”
Reading it again made me all weak and warm. Then, a firm knock on my door. Mom called out, “Joanie? We need to talk, honey.”
I tucked my diary under the mattress and unlocked the bedroom door. I returned to my bed and lay on my stomach, face turned toward the window, away from Mom. Outside, the cicadas buzzed in the trees. You could never see them, but their metallic drone filled the air.
Mom sat on Bess’s bed, smoothing the wrinkles of her pale yellow chenille spread. “So, Joanie, what is Bess talking about?”
Mom said, “I know I’ve been putting off this talk we’re supposed to have—look at me.”
I turned to face her. “What talk?”
“About sex. I hope I’m not too late, Joanie.” Yeah, Mom, I’d say you’re a little late – I’m seventeen. She said, “Has anything happened I should know about?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh dear. You—have you had—intercourse?” I gave her a blank look. Exasperated, she blurted, “You haven’t gone and ruined your life, have you?”
“Then what on earth is Bess talking about?”
“It’s nothing. I mean, it is something. I was making it up. For a story I’m writing.” That was the sad truth, too. I had to make stuff up because no guy I knew actually was capable of being that sexy and romantic. At least not with me.
“It didn’t happen?”
“You want me to write an affidavit in blood, or something?”
“Oh, thank god! It was just your overactive imagination. I should’ve known.” Yeah. Joanie and her overactive imagination. It’s like a polyp, a tumor, a cursed medical condition. Mom came over to sit beside me, and patted my bottom. “You just keep on exercising that imagination, darling. Someday, you’ll write a wonderful book and make me terribly proud.”
Mom had definite plans for our destinies. According to her timetable, I would blossom into a famous writer. And Bess, a/k/a Bug Girl, would become the next Madame Curie. Burton, the next in line, would make a great artist – Mom was positive her art genes made the big leap into his DNA. Even little Perry’s future was staked out. He was going to be an explorer or astronaut, on account of how he was always running off and getting lost.
Mom stroked my hair—it felt so good. “I can remember when my hormones were raging.” Oh god, she had to go and ruin the moment. She sighed. “Yes, I had all kinds of passionate daydreams and fantasies.” She stared at the floor for a while, then gave a bigger sigh and stood. Looked around the room. “Where’s your suitcase?” she asked. “Aren’t you packed yet?”
“Well, get on it. We want to leave first thing in the morning, before it gets too hot.”
Oh, our vacation. “Yeah, I know.”
“I’m so excited. Aren’t you?”
I shrugged. She seemed disappointed in me.
Going to Mexico was Mom’s idea. All summer, she’d been cooking up this trip to Guanajuato, ever since her friend Bertie went down there and came raving about how beautiful the city was, how colonial, how quaint, how colorful, etcetera. Mom and Bertie were both artists. Soon as she saw Bertie’s sketches, Mom decided she was going south to paint this summer, even if she had to drag all of us along.
She had a tough sell, at first. We were supposed to visit California for our summer vacation, where I hoped to see some of those hippies that had been on the nightly news. Nobody was crazy about going south of the border.
What we knew of Mexico we’d learned from our weekend trips to Juarez, an hour’s drive from our little town of Las Cruces in southern New Mexico. My parents shopped in Juarez because the food was cheaper. After our visit to the supermercado, Dad would take us to lunch at the Café Florida, where there were more waiters than customers. Mom would get a seat by the plate glass window, and while we kids attacked our hamburguesas and papas fritas, she sketched the Tarahumara Indian women who made the journey from Mexico’s west coast to beg on Juarez streets. They clustered around the window to beg for centavos. Mom usually sent little Perry outside to give them our spare change and while the Indian women smiled at his sweet chubby face and blond curls, we kids ate fast, so we could leave the fancy, empty Café Florida and escape the barefoot Indian women with babies lashed to their backs by shawls. Mom, though, could stay by the window all day until the light drained from the sky, sketching the high cheekbones and worried eyes of the Tarahumaras. Luckily for us, the Indian women, when they caught Mom drawing them, disappeared down side streets, like they were afraid Mom was trying to snag their souls.
We kids figured the rest of Mexico would be like Juarez. Mom insisted it would be different in what she called the heart of Mexico, but we still didn’t want to go. Until she told us about the mummies.
She mentioned it on a July evening after dinner, about a month before we were supposed to leave. Outside, the night rumbled with far-off thunder and the air smelled ripe with coming rain. Dad wasn’t sitting with us because it was one of his nervous nights. He was eating dinner alone in his darkened bedroom, probably watching Huntley-Brinkley for the latest bad news on Vietnam.
Mom stood up from the table and stacked my dinner plate on top of hers. “By the way, kids, I was reading up on Guanajuato today,” she said.
“Wanna-WHAT-oh?” Burton said this whenever she brought up our vacation. He meant it, like, ‘why are we going THERE?”
Mom said, “Well, there are some fascinating things to see.” She paused, then added casually, “For instance, the mummies.”
After an alert silence, Bess asked, “What mummies?”
“Well, originally they were buried, but because their families couldn’t afford to pay the cemetery tax, the city dug them up. They were surprised to find the corpses in such good condition. Something in the dirt preserves them.” We absorbed this deliciously gruesome information, and Mom laid down her final snare. “I understand they’re in a museum, lined up against the walls.”
“Wow,” Bess whispered, her eyes gleaming. She turned to Burton. “Like Edgar Allan Poe.”
“Can we see them?”
“Well, sure, if you want.”
Perry asked, “Mommies die?”
Mom gazed at him and said gently, “No honey, not mommies, mummies.”
We laughed, and Perry slipped from his chair to bury his face in Mom’s lap. She looked concerned as she stroked his plump curls. “Well, maybe we should skip the mummies.”
“No!” Burton said.
“We wanna go!” said Bess.
“The little baby can stay with Mom, while we go see the mummies,” Burton taunted.
Perry raised his head from Mom’s lap and said, “I wanna see de Mommies, too!”
Mom said, “It’s mum-my, honey.”
“Mom-my,” Perry said.
He refused to say it right, so we gave up and called them “the mommies”, like he did. After a few minutes, they morphed into ‘Zee Mommies’. You had to say it like Peter Lorre in those old black and white films we’d watch on the Late Nite Movies. Zee MAH-mees. Perry became a real pest, chanting, “Zee mommies, zee mommies, we’re gonna see zee mommies.” Mom didn’t tell him to shut up, but Dad came storming into the living room demanding to know what the ruckus was.
Perry shrieked, “Daddy! We’re going to see Zee Mommies!”
Dad winced and gave Mom a surprised, questioning look. “What the hell is he talking about?”
“I told you, Warren, remember?” Mom said, “The Mummies of Guanajuato.”
Mom said, “Mexico.”
“You’re still on about that?”
“Warren, we’re going, so don’t start backing off again…”
“Zee mommies! We wanna see Zee Mommies!” Perry cried again.
Mom and Dad stared at each other; they were having one of their silent fights. Then Dad gave a small shrug, losing gracefully. “You bet, boys,” he said, “those mummies had better watch out, too, ’cause the Adairs are coming to shake ’em up.” Burton and Perry went wild with excitement, rolling around and punching each other on the living room rug. Dad shook his head and said to Mom, “If you need me, I’ll be at Lamar’s for a while.” His home away from.
Mom walked Dad to the front door and sent him on his way to Lamar’s. She turned to us and smiled brightly, like a little girl who’d gotten her Christmas pony. “I’m so excited,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
She has this way of getting us kids caught up in her enthusiasms. Like the previous summer when she read a book on the White Nile and told us the story about the famous British explorers. Burton and Bess got inspired, and she let them dig up the back yard, which was a dust bowl anyway, since grass never had a chance against us four kids. Burton and Bess created a miniature version of the Nile, and even Lake Tanganyika. It was something to behold. If you climbed up on the garage roof and squinted, you could imagine you were looking down on the mighty mother of African civilization. Of course, our Nile had to be refilled every day with water from the hose, and a month later, when Dad saw the water bill, he swore he wasn’t going to spend his hard-earned paycheck to keep a pretend river up to snuff. The entire system dried out in two days, the once lovely oozing mud caking into bone-hard dirt platters under the beating sun.