Mexico City sits on ancient ruins, and the part that doesn’t, rests on a bog, lake bottoms, and mud. It is a monument to struggle and power, interlaced with leafy parks, fountains, and cafés.
On our second night in the city, in the Condesa neighborhood, we entered a café famous – at least to my love – for the satirist Astrid Hadad, who mocks sentimental Mexican ballad singers and outdoes them at the same time. She was not performing. Instead, we saw a female impersonator-political satirist of immense talent. I knew my white face – my love is dark-skinned – would attract La Roña’s sharp tongue. My turn came early in the program.
“Where are you from?” she asked, in a rasping petulant Spanish.
In an instant of calculation – wanting to deflect what I knew was coming, and although I was born in New Jersey, grew up around Boston, and had lived most of my adult life in California – I said, “Germany.”
With that, I became the reference for the next two hours of all that was exploitive, First World, and responsible for the horrors of the Nazi past. That seemed an acceptable choice compared with being a U.S. citizen in 2007.
After the show, I asked La Roña’s manager if they would like any critical response. I think I felt as if I deserved a word or two of my own. Plus, I wanted to get the brilliant young man, her, to stop using the PowerPoint part of her program.
First, I told him I was not a German.
“Ah,” he said, gently, “so you’re a liar as well.” In addition to all my other crimes, he might have thought.
Later, my love said she thought there had been comma after “liar,” and that La Roña had meant that he too was a liar, that only through the lie of impersonating a woman could one tell the truth.
It is hard for me to recognize his actual sex. Out of respect for his profession, I continue to call him her. I gave her my criticism, grasped her hand in both of mine and exclaimed several times what immense talent she was and my certainty she would be very successful in the future. I only briefly glanced at her flat, hairy vulnerable chest, as she continued to undress. I protested when she asked me shyly if I thought she had been too tendentious.
I lied, and said no.
The next evening, my love wanted to return, this time to hear a trumpet player and the band he played with. This seemed reasonable since my partner took up the trumpet a year ago when she turned – well – much older than when most trumpet players begin. More like when they end.
We sat at a little table eight feet from the stage. The trumpet player came first, old, overweight, slow, and blind. A waiter helped him up onto the stage. Then came the guitar player, also of many years, bent over, hunched, if not hunchbacked. A man of much dignity and wisdom. A man who saw everything. He too had to be helped up onto the small stage. Then came the piano player, equally old – late sixties, mid seventies. Eighties, said my love. Also helped up onto the stage. The drum player got up by himself. And of course, the lovely young Indian-looking woman, in middle class dress, who was introduced as the hunched guitar player’s granddaughter, she hopped onto the stage. She played the quijada, the lower jaws of a burro, whose teeth rattled to great effect when stroked by a wand.
The drummer handed the trumpet player his trumpet. He attached the mouthpiece without guiding it with his other hand, perhaps as a matter of pride, perhaps out of habit. After some fumbling, he succeeded. They began playing – slowly, the way old men might begin slowly in the first ten minutes of the day. But then I could see no difference between them and the famous Buena Vista Social Club band. These men were also Cubans, long-term residents of Mexico City. Their music moved me deeply, in a way a way I had not anticipated.
At the table next to us, there were three couples that paid us no attention, and therefore were clearly people of privilege, especially one man who spoke and acted without the reservation one would expect in a public place. A fifty-something boy in blue jeans, sandy curly hair, a soft middle, and a tumescent lower lip. The band seemed to play for him, but without fawning. When the band rested and was helped off the stage, a different guitar player – not part of the group – rushed over to the important table, not to entertain but to accompany one of the women who needed to sing her favorite old songs and ballads. When she tired of singing, a group of three other guitar players appeared, as if on cue, to replaced the first guitar player. The third player in the group strummed a lovely base guitar from Paracho, the guitar making capital of the world, some say. Its rich notes gave cadence to the whole evening. No money exchanged hands. The man of privilege – who commented on everything continuously, as if no one else were present – danced with his companion, who was at least twenty years younger than him. She was tall and blond and contained. She reflected black, making no demands. When he passed his lips over hers at one point, I saw that she kept hers closed, in fact ever so slightly pressed together. Otherwise, she met every caress – his leaning over her, touching her – with the same neutral smile, indulging him, serving as his partner.
The two other men at his table, professionals in some way, did not speak to him. They sat with their backs to a wall without windows. They watched, their eyes on patrol. He did not speak to them. His partner, tall and perfect, did not speak to them. The ballad singer did not talk to them. Nor did any of them send us a nod, not even when the wise hunched guitar player recognized us and welcomed us publicly, through the microphone – “Our friends from Guanajuato.”
I got up and went to find the bathroom, where I lingered, thinking about things, perhaps relishing a moment of solitude.
When I returned, my love said, “When you were gone, he danced with me.”
That was interesting, I thought. The man of privilege had allowed himself one more privilege – and everyone, except the trumpet player, had witnessed it. Even now, afterward, there were no glimpses, no looks from him. No nods, nor smiles. His lady continued to meet his solicitations with her cool giving.
“He danced with you when I wasn’t here? What is that about?” I asked. “Did he speak to you?”
“Not really, she said. “I was busy trying to keep up with him. Everyone was looking. Once he turned to the band and said isn’t she pretty.”
I thought of getting up and asking his lady to dance, but thought better of it. Later, a little petulant, I though of getting up and asking him to dance. But instead I ate my tender moist, almost pink breast of duck, cutting it up into pieces much smaller than is ever my style. Studying the matter, I took small slow forkfuls of the white rice with its delicious mango-ginger sauce. The band played. The other woman at his table – perhaps his sister – sang more of her ballads. Quite well, I thought. And my love’s boyfriend, as we now referred to him, continued to spread his air of privilege throughout the room, with his back to us, hanging as if drunk – though he was not – over his much younger companion, as if nothing at all had happened.