I’ve made some changes (and revised part one to reflect those changes) because I want to use a mature voice looking back instead of writing as if it’s in the now. It’s sort of a tricky process and I’m still working out the best way to use it, basically using both I and you for myself, and I’d appreciate any feedback you may have. (Part I, at least here on the blog, remains as if was before revisions.) Thanks faithful readers!!
PS: Brian, I count on you to point out any fractured Spanish. Thanks.
I look back on those few hours with some amazement. I didn’t know I’d had a defining moment, didn’t know my life would turn in an entirely new direction. The next morning, I woke early as usual, showered and dressed as usual, and went to breakfast as usual. A chorus of “Buenas dias, Juanita,” greeted me from the crew table. I smiled and waved, but this wasn’t a morning for casual talk. We had a long day ahead catching up with yesterday’s schedule and completing today’s. Picking up fruit, a warm roll, and coffee, I returned to my room to eat as I gathered up my script, sunglasses, journal and pen, familiar pieces to cushion the day.
Driving out to the set in the back seat of the crew-mobile, a luxurious limousine complete with limousine-garbed driver, felt somehow surreal after my solo drive the day before. I didn’t have to anxiously watch for the turn-off or decide between the bridge and the creek bed. The driver forded the creek bed, the water now down to a trickle between rocks. I stared out a side window at the familiar vista, watched the goats prance on the pueblo wall, waved at the children as usual, gazed at the far mountains as usual, but last night’s experience made the sunlight shimmering over the wide plain seem more vivid. At the cabin location, I went to the costume trailer and to makeup. We shot a short scene inside the cabin with Hannah, my character’s name, and her son Joey. And then we were released while the crew set up a scene outside by Hannah’s garden.
I made a bee-line to the cabin’s porch and sat in the rocking chair. It was nearing mid-morning, and sunlight carved the mountains. The Mexico sky can be so blue, it hurts your eyes to look at it; instead, you watched the mountains. Occasionally, a solitary cloud blocked the sun and sent rippling shadows across the land, filling valleys. You had fallen into the daydream of riding a horse across the slopes and racing the cloud shadows into valleys. Someone moved behind me and I turned my head sharply to see who it was. No one there. The steps leading down to the yard empty. The hair on my arms went on end and I shivered. The name Anna surfaced in my mind. Along with the name came a sadness, weighted, rooting me in the chair. The fantasy of riding a horse to freedom dissolved and my mind struggled between half-formed questions and a knowing I didn’t understand. Did an Anna once live here? That seemed far-fetched. I knew the cabin had been used for other movie sets. Who was Anna?
Gabriela dashed around the corner of the cabin. Gabriela almost always dashed, leaning into her task with the wind at her back.
“There you are…they’re ready…”
“What?” Gabriela skidded to a stop, one hand raised, her eyes registering surprise. “What?” she repeated.
“I…I don’t…I mean, you were going so fast…” I said.
Gabriela stood frozen, hand uplifted, staring at me. Abruptly the spell was broken and she started talking and moving at the same time. They were almost ready; could she come now? Carmen and Lupe were waiting.
You made a show of bustling about, shaking out my long skirts, picking up your script from where you’d tossed it on the floorboards, and walked around the cabin with Gabriela, but inside I felt wooden and stiff. Those hadn’t been my words even if they had come from my mouth. Pain had settled into my chest like an angry, wounded animal.
Carmen checked my dress, twitched the long apron back into place and sent me to makeup. In the makeup table mirror I stared into my eyes, wanting to see behind them as if I could peel away a layer to see clearly. My hand lifted then fell to my lap.
“Si?” Gloria asked. Her hands tucked away stray hairs and secured hairpins. You hadn’t talked to her about the previous night and had no way to explain what had happened on the porch.
“Oh…nada…pero…” I stumbled over words. We only knew a little of each other’s language but we’d been able to communicate.
“Wait,” I said, touching her hand. You can see her reflection in your memory, sunlight framing her head, as she watched your face in the mirror.
“I’m working…trabajando en el jardin.” A miracle. I’d remembered the words for working and garden. In the same sentence. Gloria understood immediately and began loosening wisps of hair around my face.
On the set, aluminum reflector panels were set up at one corner of the garden plot. Two crew members lugged sandbags over to stabilize the legs against the slope of the ground. The director and cinematographer conferred quietly beside the camera. Along with the rest of the crew, they were Mexicans, although the director’s name was Sergio Olhovich. I’d thought that an odd name for a Mexican but somewhere in conversations, I’d learned his father was from Russia. I hadn’t learned why his father had come to Mexico but that explained his name.
When we actors had arrived in Mexico City for rehearsals, the press parties had made a big deal of this Mexican/American co-production, but out here in Durango, our American “co-” part was decidedly flimsy. The star of the shoot was Salvador Sánchez, a well-known Mexican actor. Most of the Americans complained about something or another, mainly the isolation, but for some reason I felt at home. Possibly because the expanse of sky reminded me of the farm where I’d grown up in Kansas.
Miguel, the assistant director, walked over. He’d worked with Americans. Today he wore a black T-shirt with Dune printed across the front. Another made in Mexico movie.
“You ready?” I nodded. As ready as I was going to be.
The afternoon sun threw long shadows across the set, forcing the cameraman to shift angles. I trudged back to the garden. The scene wasn’t working, a long shot, and I kept missing my mark. I felt stupid and hot.
Gloria waited at the edge of a row of plastic vegetable tops. I bent my head and felt a tissue blot off sweat. What was wrong here? Why couldn’t I just run up the hill, hit the damn sandbag, and be done with it? We had another scene to do and I was holding things up.
“Juanita,” Gloria said. “Calmete.”
Calm myself? Calm wasn’t going to propel me up that hill. Defiance jerked my head up. Eyes like deep black pools met my defiance—pools spreading in ripple-less black until I felt myself sliding into silence. A far away point of light rushed toward me and a wash of heat traveled over my forehead and down my back. I blinked. Gloria’s face swam into focus, a smile rustling at the corners of her mouth. Nodding once, I turned and knelt beside the plastic vegetable tops.
I closed my eyes and rehearsed the run, measured the slope of the hill, felt the touch of sandbag at my toe.
I didn’t think, allowed my body to move automatically, my hands lifting my skirts from around my legs. I skidded to a stop. My toe touched the sandbag.
“Cut!” Sergio said.
Pats on my shoulder. A scurry of movement for the next shot, a short take of the vegetable garden and a close up of me kneeling at the row of vegetable tops. The crew began moving lights, and I headed for the cabin porch to wait. I glanced down the slope towards Gloria before a reflector blocked my view. Our eyes locked and I felt the wave of heat again.
“Buen trabajo, Juanita,” a crew member said in passing. I lifted my head, forced a smile.
I felt…odd…as I climbed the porch steps and sank into the rocking chair. Now there was something else to wonder about. It felt like something I’d already wondered about. Gloria knew something, had some kind of power. Not power over, just power. I traced one finger over my forehead, exploring the space where Gloria had traced a cross.
“Hey, Janet.” Holly was on the porch. She sat on the floor, curling her legs under her. “That was interesting.”
“What was?” I reached over and absently stroked her hair. Only she wasn’t a girl anymore. While she played my daughter, we didn’t have any scenes together, but I’d seen a maturity growing in her.
Holly laughed and ducked away from my hand. “You, silly. What do you think I’m talking about? Really. I watched you. You were surprised and happy and scared and disappointed all at once. I saw it on your face.”
Holly wanted information, not attention. I dropped my hand into my lap and studied my fingers as if they were foreign objects with a life of their own, reaching out to comfort without even knowing the reason.
“Do you mean how did I do it?”
“Yeah. How do you get all those things going on at the same time? I try but it never works for me.”
“I think what I did was let go of trying.” How to explain Gloria or the wash of light? Even now you can’t explain it. Did Gloria do anything or was her gaze a shortcut to clarity? Something I could do for myself if I would simply remember.
“I was frustrated and my head was cranking at all my mistakes…but when I knelt down in the garden, I became still. I kept my eyes closed and rehearsed the run over and over in my mind. I think what that did was give my body the information it needed and left the rest of me free to be Hannah. It’s like I had to let go and trust.”
Holly frowned. “But what do you trust?”
“It’s not a what…it’s more like…” What was that trust? From the corner of my eye, I saw Gabriela round the cabin corner.
“There you are…they’re ready…”
Time shifted. In slow motion, I turned my head in time to see Gabriela disappear. A crash and a scream washed across the porch. Holly leapt up and ran down the steps; crew members swarmed across the yard. I felt frozen as the memory from earlier in the day replayed itself in brutal reality. I heard the echo of Gab’s voice, saw her stop, surprised at my “Gab..Stop!” Where had the words come from that had come from my mouth?
Two men helped Gabriela stand on one leg. She cradled one arm, her face was pinched and white. A car pulled up and hands guided Gabriela into the back seat; another woman got in with her and the car sped away. No one noticed I remained frozen on the porch.
No sé, no sé—there was so much I didn’t know. Or understand. The yard became deserted. A dry wind shifted dust. I rubbed my hands over my face, pressing my fingertips against eyelids. I had nowhere to run, nothing to grab hold of and make it real. My head came up slowly and I stared at the mountains. I’d probably smeared my makeup. The black dot of a hunting bird soared on wind currents, heading my way. The air was unmoving, as if someone had made a motion that nobody breathe. My own breath was ragged, labored, squeezed out of my chest.
Soaring. What would it take to learn to soar?
That evening, the crew set up for a faux love scene. Peter and I played husband and wife but we didn’t much like each other. Each of us had made some effort to reach out to the other but Peter moved slow and I moved fast and our timing slid us past any possible interface or connection. Peter also had a habit of long, drawn out discussions with Sergio and Robert about his character’s motivations as the crew waited patiently. Sergio was always patient. I, less so.
Tonight, we were both wary, watching each other from opposite sides of the set. Unexpectedly, the generators conked out. Carmen and Lupe lighted the prop lanterns and in that soft halo of light the cabin became a home. You softened into Hannah and Peter became Dan. It had been easy to stay connected once the generator was fixed and humming again. Dan kissed Hannah gently. For that one night, light had shifted our perceptions and healing was possible.
“Madrugada.” The word rolled on my tongue—more a butterfly taste than a dawn taste, but maybe that’s what dawn was—a multi-colored butterfly pulling light into day. I grinned. Waxing poetic at first light. Well, at least I knew what day it was: Monday, my last day of work. You remembered Saturday night when a group of us went dancing, and Sunday when we’d played volleyball in the pool. Muscles all over my body were sore. Saturday night, the oo’s and ah’s had been affirming when you’d gone down looking more like New York Janet, eye shadow, short skirt, and all.
A chorus of “Buenas dias, Juanita!” wound through the dining room as I walked in. I loved the sound of it. Peter sat alone at a far table, bent over the script. After filling my plate from the buffet, I joined the crew table. They were patient with my Spanish and in a good mood this morning.
“Juanita, do you want huitlicoche on your eggs? I’ll order some for you.” A roar of laughter went up from the table. She’d become a story.
“No, no, gracias. Ahorita, no.” I flipped one hand in the Mexican gesture I’d practiced. More laughter.
At dinner the night before, you’d ordered something off the menu you vaguely knew was fish. It was fish all right, covered in some kind of very black sauce. I’d poked it with my fork, lifting one corner.
“What’s this?” That’s when the laughter started.
“Huitlicoche,” rang from a chorus of voices.
“Si….but what’s that?”
“A black hongo,” Mano said. “It grows on corn.”
Hongo translated to mushroom, probably harmless enough. I took a small bite as they’d watched. “Que Bueno!” I said, surprised. And it was good, a musky, smoky taste with kernels of corn scattered through it. They laughed but it sounded like approval laughter. I pressed for more information: what did it look like, how did they make it? It was black, Mano told me. It grew on corn in the rainy season.
A sudden image popped into my memory. Smut. I was eating corn smut. I joined in the laughter, but I didn’t have the language to tell them why I laughed, or to explain a story of Kansas corn. The farm was on high land, and while corn did best on rich bottom land along creek and river beds, Dad grew some. You couldn’t remember how many times you’d heard him say, “Corn’s not going to make it if we don’t get some rain.” Some years we got rain, other years we didn’t. In the years when there was too much rain, the corn sprouted black fungus. We cut off the black stuff before cooking. Badly infected corn was thrown to the pigs. Kansas pigs had dined on huitlicoche for decades! The image made me laugh.
The men left the table for their trip out to the set. My last day of work. Where had the time gone? Joey and his mom came in and sat at another table. She prodded him to eat. Must be nice to have your mom with you on location, someone to look after you and make sure you were all right. I started to sigh, feeling lonely again, but caught myself.
“Lift your head, girl,” I muttered to myself as I got up. “Keep your head up and just keep laughing.”
Now there was a motto. I should paste it to my forehead…well, that might interfere with makeup. Maybe in my palm.
My last day turned into a long day, several pick-up shots, and one long scene in late afternoon, a continuation of the run up the hill from the garden of the day before as husband rides into the yard, daughter who’d been kidnapped by the Salvador Sanchez character, riding behind him. This time I had to run to the well in the middle of the set but along level ground. We did take after take of running and hugging and crying and daughter sliding from horse, etcetera. And then we’d do the same from another direction. And then close-ups. In between takes, I’d sit in the rocking chair and rest as Gloria blotted my face and reapplied smeared makeup. I remember wondering why people thought movie-making so glamorous.
When I heard, “That’s a wrap,” feelings of relief and sadness flooded my body. I wasn’t ready to finish but oh, so grateful to stop. You did a lot of hugging and thanking and received more of the same. And then gratefully sank into the soft limousine back seat for the drive back to the hotel.
I walked down the hall in a bathrobe, my head wrapped in a towel, and carrying a tequila bottle. Peter was afraid no one would want to come to the wrap party he’d organized for me. I was simply afraid. Of what, you wasn’t sure. Leave-taking? Returning to New York? That sent a bit of a shiver up my spine.
I knocked on his open door.
“Hey, you’re early,” Peter said.
“Yeah, I know. I only came down for a minute.” I held out the bottle of tequila and some limes. “There wasn’t time to go shopping, but I had this.”
You wonder if you might have looked like a little girl, scrubbed clean, except for the dark circles under my eyes. Peter rocked forward as if to enfold me. But he didn’t. “Come on in.”
I walked in and set the bottle on a table crowded with bowls of chips and nuts and a tray of fruit and cheese. A bouquet of flowers was propped in a water glass.
“It looks nice in here,” I said, touching one petal on a bright yellow flower.
“They’re for you,” he said.
I smiled for what felt like the first time all day. “Thanks. I’d better go get dressed.”
Peter fidgeted. “Have a drink. We’ll inaugurate the party.” He poured two shots and handed one to me. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” he Bogarted gruffly, and lifted his glass in a toast.
Another knock on the door and a stream of men entered, crew members, making the room seem too small. All were holding bottles or bags. And singing. A serenade by the sound of it. I stood beside the table, holding my glass, eyes wide, mouth open. I started crying and laughing at the same time. The song ended. The men began unpacking bags and pouring drinks. I caught Peter’s eye and lifted my cup. We finished the toast, tossing back the tequila.
More people arrived. Peter busied himself pouring drinks and offering food. I slipped out the door and returned a few minutes later, dressed but with hair still damp and minus makeup. Peter sat on the bed, picking out the notes to a Mexican song on his guitar. Laughter and songs dispelled the heaviness of Gabriela’s accident—word had gone around she’d broken her arm in two places and cracked a bone in one leg—not erased the memory, but made it something livable. Something a part of rather than apart.
Within a round of applause, Peter handed off the guitar and went to the table. A roll of chords behind him announced another song. I saw Sergio come in the door and went to say hello. Peter was at the table, pouring three shots. I saw him pluck a flower from the bouquet and with uncharacteristic abandon, stick the flower between his teeth. Balancing the three drinks in his hands, he wove his way across the room.
“Uummmm” he said, the flower stem blocking his words. He thrust a dink at me and another at Sergio. With a free hand, he took the flower from his mouth.
“This needed an ear,” he said, tucking it behind my ear.
“I don’t know. It looked pretty stunning between your teeth!” I said. My sense of humor was back. Sergio and Peter laughed. A half-lift of cups became a toast and we tossed back the tequila.
“Think it’s going to rain again?” Peter asked.
“I think not. That was a late storm—a last hurrah as you say,” Sergio said.
“That’s why Gabriella fell,” he said. “Someone piled a bunch of planks under the porch from of the rain and 2x4s were sticking out. She tripped.”
“How’s she doing?” Peter said.
“I will call now.” Sergio looked for someplace to put his cup. Peter stuck out his hand.
“Thank you. It was a good party.” Sergio nodded abruptly and left.
“I didn’t mean to drive him off.” Peter’s voice held a plaintive note.
“You didn’t,” I said. “He was talking about calling the hospital when you came over. It’s a great party; you did a fine job.”
Peter towered a good six inches above me but he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “It’s not me,” he said, finally looking up. “You did this. The good feelings in the room are because of you.”
Now it was my turn to look down. I was always better at giving compliments than receiving them. A little clumsily, Peter draped one arm around my shoulders, the cup in his hand jutting out at an angle.
“It’s okay,” he said.
Why was it so hard to be people? People with no roles to play.