Putting All My Eggs in the Boyfriend Basket
As my friends left college for exciting jobs and law school, I went to Mexico for a guy.
By Deborah Way
Ten months out of college, I was sitting in a tiny hut in a Mexican beach town, taking a break from my identity crisis long enough to smoke a joint with my boyfriend, when a knock at the door changed everything.
We had gotten together at the end of my senior year, when I had no plan for what came next. He was statue-of-a-Greek-youth beautiful and Presidential Scholar brilliant. He was also two years behind me in school, spoke Spanish and had enough advanced-placement credits to take off a semester just for fun, and so he was spending half his junior year in Mexico, on $10 a day, traveling on crowded diesel buses with others who had to go cheaply, including the occasional clucking, flapping caged chicken.
I did not speak Spanish, not even “un poco,” and except for summer trips to Canada, had never been out of the United States. In my own junior year, to earn spending money, I had taken a part-time job at a local ad agency. After graduation, as my friends were putting their eggs in ambitious, impressive baskets — graduate school, law school, publishing jobs in New York City — I started working at the agency full-time.
I had zero respect for advertising and no clue what I was doing with my life.
“I have to quit,” I told my boss. “I need to be in Mexico.”
Though I promptly let myself be persuaded to stay in exchange for three weeks off, in my mind my eggs were squarely in the boyfriend basket.
I flew to Acapulco, where he met me at the airport. On the seven-hour, two-bus ride back to where he’d come from — tiny Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast — I managed to lose the change purse holding $200 of the $250 I’d brought. I was 22, and it was so much money, and even though we were there together, I felt in my heart I was alone.
I felt alone a lot with him. A loner himself, he was inscrutable. I knew so many things about him: the names of his childhood cats, his extended family’s divorces and remarriages, the way so many of his memories revolved around what food had been served. But I didn’t feel like I knew him.
I was desperate to know: Who are you? Meaning: Why are you with me?
In Puerto Escondido, we stayed in a stucco hut with a tin roof on a scrubby hillside about 30 yards up from the beach. It had a palapa awning, a bed, table, bench and one pull-chain light bulb fixture.
He had bought a colorful cotton bedspread, a hammock he strung outside between the awning posts, a blue enamel pot so we could cook in the brick firepit and two blue enamel bowls to match.
Puerto Escondido was a fishing village and surfing spot, but I did neither. The waves were so unnerving that I didn’t even go into the ocean. Everything unnerved me. On the beach, young boys sold roasted iguanas to eat. On the land next to our hut, two horses grazed, often with enormous erections, while I lay in the hammock smoking Mexican cigarettes, trying not to look.
Before I arrived, we had written letters, mine attempting to be literary, sexy and romantic, sent to the general-delivery mail list in towns he would be passing through; his a travelogue of meals he’d eaten, markets he’d visited, people he’d met, sketches of birds and a wooden box he was carving. I’d scan his words in a rush, hoping for something that would make my heart pound, and was always disappointed. On one of his prearranged calls from a pay phone, he’d said, “I like your letters a lot, but I can’t talk that way.”
I didn’t talk that way myself; I was just trying to poke something out of him, some sign that I held him in some thrall. I was smart, sure, and could come up with a zinger in the moment, and could even be considered arresting in a Virginia Woolf-ish way, but I didn’t feel dazzling. I needed him to be dazzled.
Because he — jeez Louise, everybody seemed to want him. From the minute he set foot on campus, it seemed everyone knew who he was. An art major, he was talented enough to score a grad-student sculpture studio as a sophomore. You’d see him riding his bike around town, seated casually erect, hands on his strong thighs or dangling gracefully at his sides. Nobody looked that good on a bike. And the way his hair fell across his beautiful face.
This was who I had come to Mexico to be with, and I felt that in his heart — well, I wasn’t sure what was in his heart, but I knew I was too hapless to be loved. I couldn’t even bring myself to order my own food when we went to a restaurant. Sitting at a table printed with a cerveza logo, I’d nod for him to order for me. Whatever he ordered, I barely ate.
I was hungry but not. I was the queen of constipation, not just my insides but my whole being. Life after college was supposed to get bigger, and I had traveled 2,000 miles so mine could shrivel into a hard little turd.
And then it happened. One morning we woke up and decided to smoke the joint he’d been saving for the right occasion. We got paralyzingly high and were sitting on the bed giggling, talking about nothing and what we’d do that day, and I said, “You know what we need? We need to eat some chicken.”
Chicken. Chicken would taste so good. The thought of this craving made us laugh the way being really high makes you laugh, and when, out of the blue, someone knocked on the door of our hut, we laughed even harder. Guilty-terror laughter, trying to hush each other, because we were in Mexico, getting stoned, and who could be knocking on our door?
“Don’t open it!” I whisper-shrieked. “It’s the police!”
“Of course I’m going to open it!”
And he did. And it was not the police. Not only was it not the police, but it was a little girl offering up a plastic bag and saying in a shy voice, “Pollo?”
Even stoned, I knew what that meant.
I have no idea how much that uncooked, plucked chicken cost, or what we added to it as it simmered in our blue enamel pot, or how it tasted served up in our blue enamel bowls. I had no room in my head for anything but the miracle that had occurred.
I was disoriented and dislocated, near penniless and voiceless. No vision for the future, no concept for my life. I had a job I was ashamed of and a relationship I wasn’t at all sure of. But I had wished for a chicken, and a chicken was delivered to my door.
I knew enough to take this as the sign from the universe it clearly was — a sign not just that everything would be OK, but also that I could make things happen.
I had made the chicken happen. Conjured it into being. And after I was no longer stoned but still high on the experience, it started to dawn on me, thrillingly, that I’d made the relationship happen too.
Not in a puppet-master way. Not in a way I even needed to fully understand. It was enough to understand that somewhere in me, somehow, was a kind of power — strong enough to compel him to buy a bedspread and a hammock and blue enamelware just to make things nice for me. To travel seven hours each way to collect me at the airport. To be with me in a way that forsook all others.
I had put my eggs in the boyfriend basket, and a chicken had shown up. Maybe for a person who could conjure a chicken, there would be other baskets too.
All this is what the chicken helped me see.
And much later, after 10 years together — years during which he graduated and I succeeded in quitting the ad agency, and we moved to Boston and I started to write in a way that would lead to a career, and we found and began restoring the property that was to be our home forever, but also years during which I came to the painful realization that he would always be inscrutable, that after all we were not built for each other — the lesson of the chicken helped me see that I could make the relationship end.
And so I did. We are still friends. Talk-every-week kind of friends. He has the enamel pot. I have the bowls.
Deborah Way is the creator and editor of @TheKeepthings, a memoir project on Instagram and Substack that features stories of lost loved ones inspired by the things they left behind.
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