white wicket fence
I didn't mention the barbecue we had this past weekend because it was so much like the others we've had, there didn't seem to be any ore to mine there. We gathered at Ross and Mary's, sat around and talked, and played croquet. I've usually associated croquet with a kind of domestic stupor, putting it right up there with badminton and Marco Polo as things you end up doing because you've found yourself in the backyard with a bunch of people and a bunch of time. But for half of my life I've carried a specific memory of playing croquet, a golden reverie from the beginning of my adulthood, a period so adventurous and foreign that it sometimes seems as if it must've happened to someone else. Simply holding a croquet mallet, feeling the varnished handle, time-worn smooth, triggers the recollection of being eighteen and far far away.
That part of my past beckons on a regular basis, mostly, I think, because it was the last era of absolute freedom in my life. I find myself now surrounded by routine, and it's normal for the brain to fire off one or two sentiment-laden remembrances to maintain emotional balance, to offer equilibrium, and to keep its host from leaping off a bridge. When the soul hungers, it sends the body out to look for food.
This usually puts me in a bookstore.
And so yesterday there I was, sniffing through the travel section where I came across "The Grown-Up's Guide To Running Away From Home" by Rosanne Knorr. At first I thought it was similar to another book, one I keep at hand as a sort of psychic bus ticket, "How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found" by Doug Richmond. But I opened the book and discovered it's about how to move to another country and live there for a long long time on the up and up. It discusses the practical matters of finances, health care, and cultural differences that arise when Americans go away to become expatriates.
Expats. The term smacks of intrigue and romance. Monsieur Rick.
Though I never really got serious with the idea of living overseas forever, when I got out of high school in 1975 I went down to Mexico to live in a small village on the coast, a place with no phones, no pavement, nothing but life the way it used to be. The village of Santa Inez had just recently acquired electricity, thus launching itself boldly into the 1920's, and I, newly electrified by adult independence, arrived to try to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
As it turned out, I was not the first of my kind in Santa Inez. I shared my paradise with a variety of expatriate Americans, most of roughly a certain age, late twenties - early thirties, who'd come in pursuit of a variety of balms for their idiosyncrasies. The combination of the Vietnam War, counterculture philosophies, and rejection of upper-middle-class lifestyles had driven these folks to an easier place. Some were veterans, and most were surfers.
Some had been there for years and had helped to blur the line between the native villagers and the expats. Each community learned from the other, and eventually trust found its way into the relationship, so much so that the Mexicans could rely on the expats to discourage expat wannabe's and interlopers who couldn't or wouldn't respect the ways of Santa Inez.
Of this group, Jack was the most established in the community. He'd married a Mexican woman, they had kids, and with his own hands he built a house on the beach that was admired by everyone. It was made not of adobe but of cinderblock, its roof was not thatched palm but red tile atop two stories with the upper level open to the sea. His property was about an acre in size and uniquely landscaped with fifty banana trees spaced evenly amid a perfect lawn of deep green Bermuda grass. Jack was King of the Expats and, try as they might, the transplants could not help but envy him. In them the seed of keeping up with the Joneses had been planted long ago. I have the feeling that eventually many of them discovered that the change they were seeking was not geographical.
My stay there was brief compared to the others, but I was welcomed as one of them. We were all a merry bunch, and parties were the order of the day. Food and drink were always plentiful. Music, if not live, came out of large speakers from the open loft above. Sometimes we danced. The atmosphere at Jack's couldn't help but make the Americans feel more refined, for here we could picture ourselves in the highest contrast available in the village, like Gatsby's Gone Native.
At a party one day it was on his lawn that we laid out the croquet field. We drank and tapped the little balls around through banana hazards and under eaves where iguanas sat sunning. I remember standing on the grass looking out past the fence that marked the property line along the road to the plaza and seeing Mexican women and men and children make their way to work. The line between the worlds had never been more distinct than it was at that moment.
We may as well have been wearing white silk suits.
My stay there wound down some weeks later, and I returned to California to pursue the conclusions I'd distilled there in the jungle. As is usually the case, those conclusions needed to be revised eventually to accommodate reality. Then, as is usually the case, reality had to be revised in order to accommodate some conclusions.
In spite of my occasional swoops into easier places, I'm all grown up now. Half a life later, knee-deep in results and barbecue sauce, I tap the little balls around again, floating on a memory that's time-worn smooth. Part of me is still at that beach, looking out over the waters...
"I Won't Be Going South For A While" -- The Palladinos -- LEAVING LAS VEGAS: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK
Wisdom of the Day:
"Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there are no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst."
- Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay