“Is this the mild one?” I asked. A question, directed at no one in particular.
Unsurprisingly, there was no reply. Sitting at the end of a long table that felt less secure than my financial future, I hadn’t yet taken a bite of my food. Still, the aroma of spices I’ve never been equipped to handle was enough to draw sweat from my brow. “I asked the waiter for mild” I added softly, my eyes falling glumly to an overflowing plate of rice, beans and a black liquid that reminded me of the time the family dog ate a full packet of cigarettes then brought them back from both ends. Looking around at the décor surrounding me it was clear, there was a rich, authentic feel to this Mexican restaurant. Which made sense, as I was in Mexico.
Deep in Zona Rosa, a neighbourhood of Mexico City known and admired for its nightlife, the atmosphere was raucous. There were only a handful of us. Booked in on a two-week organised tour of Mexico. Ten other young travellers and myself, only a couple of years in remission from my battle with Leukaemia, but ready to see what this sprawling metropolis had to offer.
Pushing my food away with all the contempt of a white traveller in a foreign country I took a long, measured sip of the local beer I’d so vehemently been recommended. Co-ro-na, the label read. An exotic name. Was it tied to the Aztec culture that once flourished in Mexico? I didn’t know. This was truly living.
‘We’re going soon’. Tim, my roommate on this jaunt through Mexico, directed traffic as we slowly stood up as a group. The crackle of neon lights above and the faint smell of burnt food wafting from the kitchen behind us. Feigning disappointment to be leaving my plate, bursting the Scoville scale as it was, on the faded red and white tablecloth that comes with every Mexican restaurant this side of Tijuana, we filed through the door and out into the waiting Mexico night.
There’s a jovial atmosphere to Mexico City. Even more so at night. Crowds of people spill onto the street, with bars and eateries offering endless chances to indulge in a city with such culture and vibrancy that it really feels alive. You don’t go out in Mexico City so much as with Mexico City. It’s the urban version of the mate who encourages you to have another shot of tequila. Then nods sympathetically when you throw up on your best shirt.
Wandering aimlessly down busy footpaths, the call of street vendors selling their wares an ever-present soundtrack, our night was just beginning. Amid the twilight markets and families sitting down for dinner as the heat of the day cooled and the air suddenly feels refreshing, we had somewhere to be. See, our motley crew had a purpose and a plan. Led by our inimitable tour leader, a man whose name I have forgotten over the years and will instead refer to by the lazy cultural stereotype of ‘Juan’, we were in search of a club.
Not just any club though. THE club. Mexico City’s most visited and least remembered, with enough good times and Agave to not only forget your night come morning, but also your name and purpose in life. All of us, fresh faced and newly introduced to Mexico City, were told this destination was legendary. The single hottest night spot in all of Zona Rosa. A place where tourists and locals mixed. Where the music infected you. Brought you to your feet. Pulled you through crowded dance floors until collectively, triumphantly, euphorically, your body and mind were lost in the moment. If you were lucky your senses would find you again by sun up. If you were really lucky, they’d never find you again at all.
Like a conga line of waiting revellers, we followed ‘Juan’. Leading us towards a good time like the Pied Piper led rats to their death. It wasn’t long before I heard him from the front of the group. ‘We have arrived’ he purred. His r’s rolling so far they ended up somewhere in Guatemala. Slapping down a bent and crumpled wad of pesos to ensure my safe passage past the front door security, I hurried inside.
‘I’m not sure this club is that legendary, hey’. Tim again. His laconic recap of the situation right on the money. Or the peso, as it were. Standing in a corner of this ‘legendary’ night club, I struggled to hold onto my optimism which quickly left me, heading out a fire escape, past a taco stand and into the night.
The place was interesting, to say the least. For a start, smoke filled the room. Hanging thick in the air, like my Mum had just been in and chain smoked a pack of Winnie Blues. Not that she’d approve of this place. It was grimy and dirty and full of hard edged bar stools (everyone knows my Mum likes softer modern counter stools). It was the type of place you might see in a low budget music video or poorly themed porn. There was a huge dance floor around which the rest of the room was set. Made visually impressive thanks to a conspicuous absence of people on it. In fact, scanning the room, there was an almost total absence of people full stop.
Save for a few lost souls hanging by the bar, our group of blindly led night owls made up the entire patronage. And that’s not including the handful of bar staff who looked about as interested to be there as my parents were to be at the magic shows I performed as a child. The ceiling was patchy with a heavy presence of wiring in the exposed panels. Though they must have functioned. How else would the epilepsy inducing strobe lighting be in such powerful effect? Sending beams of light bouncing throughout the empty club like they were looking for a way out. And I didn’t really blame them.
Sitting forlornly on a row of aged, time-worn black benches, Tim and I locked eyes, a tacit understanding that this night might not be as memorable as we’d hoped. Sipping on drinks and watching a disco ball, certainly an unrenovated remnant from the 70’s rather than an ironic modern addition, spin slowly in the centre of the room.
But when you’re young and in Mexico (which I’ll admit is not easy for everyone to be, especially if you’re old and not in Mexico) you make your own fun. Dodging the draconian liquor laws found back home in Australia, Tim and I were able to purchase a bottle of vodka to ourselves for what sounded like an absolute steal when quoted to us in Pesos. Turns out it wasn’t that good of a deal when converted to Aussie dollars. If anything, we got a little ripped off. But, we were at the foot of the night, staring up at the summit before us and that’s all that mattered. With hope in our hearts and Grey Goose in our glasses, we toasted to Mexico City and the adventures we anticipated.
The night went on, as nights tend to do. And as time went by we were joined by others in this club. Although, judging by the look of disappointment on their faces, they too had been lured here with the promise of a good time. And been met by reality the way a flaming bag of dog shit meets the bottom of a shoe. Looking back, what it really felt like was a dirty garage. But who says you can’t have a good time in a garage? Not me. I had a pool table in my garage growing up. The epicentre of good times. Sure, the table didn’t fit and if you wanted to shoot for a side pocket the cue had to start 90 degrees above your head. But conventional pool is overrated. If you don’t dislocate an elbow sinking the black are you even playing pool?
It had taken a solid couple of hours. But now we were cooking. The club had filled. And the place had started to rock. Keep in mind, there’s a unique formula that tends to apply when you travel in large groups and it was something I’d forgotten to consider. It begins back at the hostel when anticipation builds. Pre-drinks kick in and there is a consensus that the night ahead will be ‘the best night ever’. Blokes ask each other ‘is this enough cologne?’ while wearing far too much cologne. That sort of thing. Then, when the build-up reaches fever pitch, just as things at the club start to look promising, you immediately lose sight of everyone and spend the rest of the night pushing through strangers, trying to find your mates and whimpering softly to yourself. It’s the formula. It’s unavoidable. It’s science. Even though it had taken time to reach capacity, once the place was full of people, I ended up separated from my mates and alone.
It was in the melee of trying to find my mates again that I saw her. She was beautiful. Dancing confidently on her own. With skin that looked softer than my approach to hard work. We locked eyes across the dancefloor in a reality painfully cliché. I would have laughed at the irony if I wasn’t now running on 95% French vodka. But chemistry isn’t an exact science. Finding connections on the road can happen in an instant. And here I was, drawn towards this young woman as if pulled by an irresistible force, instead of being pushed by a heaving mass of dancing bodies behind me as was the case.
‘Ola’. Well, that was it. I’d just blown my entire Spanish wad.
‘Ola’. A reply as seductive as it was introductory.
I offered up my vodka, hoping to bridge a potential language gap in the only way I could. But she shook her head, a wry smile passing over her lips as the club continued to heave and shake around us. I shrugged, taking a long sip myself to show her I was more than capable of drinking for two. The threat of vomit coming back into my mouth was almost immediate. Having wrongly assumed I was more of a badass in Mexico than back home in Sydney I set the bottle down to focus on this alluring stranger.
By now a small space had cleared for us on the dancefloor and I took it with all the awkward gyrating my body could muster. She was a natural of course. Caramel skin, dark eyes and long, brown hair that jumped from her shoulders with every swivel of her well-timed hips. That’s not my style though. I go for a different approach. Focusing on awkward angles. A style of dance that involves sharp elbow based pivots and hyper-extended knees, that was my thing.
But if love is blind then it also can’t dance. Despite my ‘scarecrow comes to life and enters a dance battle’ style, she rolled her head back and roared with laughter. But not the type of laughter I was met with when I told my family I wanted to skateboard across Europe – not realising how large Europe was and how difficult skateboarding is. Instead, it was a beautiful, gentle joy that seemed to celebrate my best attempts to dance rather than poke fun.
I did my best to introduce myself above the music which was louder than my uncles best Hawaiian shirt. Though no easy task, I managed to convey that my name was Alex and I was from Australia. I felt I’d covered all the basics. She did her best to return the favour, rattling off a hybrid Spanish and English monologue, with her grasp of my native tongue noticeably flimsy, though I’ll admit I didn’t catch much. To be honest, one of the only words I recognised in her amalgamation of English and Spanish was ‘bebe’.
‘Baby!’ My face broke into an excited grin at having deciphered just one word. As far as translations go, the Spanish ‘bebe’ to the English ‘baby’ was one of the simpler. But I didn’t have time for celebrating, or as the Spanish would say ‘celebrando’. Instead, I repeated it back to her, like a dog looking for positive reinforcement. ‘Bebe’. She nodded, pointing at herself. Breaking into a broad smile before saying it again. ‘Bebe’.
This felt like a step forward in our budding relationship. My confidence, sky-high. Obviously, she wanted me to call her ‘baby’. She was feeling me. And I couldn’t blame her. I ran with it. ‘Alright baby here we go’. Nodding enthusiastically, I immediately morphed into the worst version of myself. ‘Yeah baby, we’re having a good time! Let’s dance baby.’ Equal parts arrogance and shock at her apparent elevation of me from nameless stranger to using cute pet names.
I was half a world away from my life back in Australia. But more than that, I was leaving my hospital experiences behind. Each memory of pain and terror on my journey with cancer refused entry at the door of this non-descript, run-down Mexico City club. Another moment that helped piece together my fractured soul after so long hurting.
It really could have been a minute. Or maybe an hour. But with my expensive vodka supplies all but diminished and the type of courage flowing through my veins that precedes statements like “I can definitely make that jump” or “I’m pretty sure it’s not loaded”, I made the call. Threw the invite out into the universe, and told my swaying senorita that I had a room just down the road.
She was onboard. I know, I was shocked too. But before we could leave this club, a club which I’d begrudgingly come to enjoy, she had one request of me. She needed me to let her mates know that she was coming with me. Seemed reasonable enough. And in pointing to three blokes sitting together at a small table across the room I had my targets. Taking my first step towards them she put her hand on my arm gently, and softly spoke in Spanish once more. Undoubtedly overestimating my ability to understand. The same word that kept coming up throughout the night. ‘Baby’. Pointing to herself. ‘Baby’. Pointing right at her stomach. ‘Baby’.
It all clicked. The reason she didn’t want a sip of alcohol. The reason she needed me to let her friends know she was leaving. The reason she was so committed to making sure I was comfortable with the word. She didn’t want me to call her baby. She was carrying one. And now, I was crossing a busy dance floor, more alcohol in my blood stream than there were grains of rice in the meal I couldn’t eat earlier, to ask three random blokes if I could take their pregnant friend back to my hotel room.
Approaching the table with the same steady caution a cat uses to approach a cucumber, my heart pounded to the point it had synced up with the base that eternally threatened to shake the whole building apart.
‘Ola’. Once again flexing my entire Spanish vocabulary. Thankfully though, their English was more than capable. Although in many ways I wish it hadn’t been.
‘We saw you dancing with our friend’. His voice low and measured. Somewhere between threatening and revelling in my awkwardness. I leant in to ensure I didn’t miss a word. He gestured to the three other blokes with him. The entire line-up close personal friends with my dancefloor acquaintance. So close, they considered her a sister it would seem.
‘And we know, that you know, you will treat her right’.
His curious wording had me wondering what exactly he meant by that as I leant in and nodded slowly. Despite my confusion I thought it best to agree with him. ‘I will’.
As he leant back with all the confidence of a man who speaks two languages while I barely spoke one, he smiled. But it wasn’t the same casual, breezy smile of my dance floor partner. It was the ‘I know something you don’t smile’. Pulling back his shirt which hung low over his waist, he reached into his pocket. There, in his hand, a long, slim blade that glistened in the symphony of lights that danced throughout the room. ‘I know that you will’. In hindsight he was really labouring the point. I’d already agreed to treat her right. But hindsight is 20/20 when you aren’t being threatened with a knife.
Stepping back from the four of them my mind began to race. The gears turning. Now that I think about it, what did he mean by ‘treat her right?’. For a moment I had a terrifying vision. Standing at the altar. This knife wielding maniac behind me, forcing me to make an honest woman of their friend while he growled ‘treat her right’ on a permanent loop. Popping up at soccer games and awards night as our bastard child grew up, still telling me to treat her right. Ruining the toast at our forced 10-year wedding anniversary by jumping on the mic to yell ‘TREAT HER RIGHT’ to rapturous applause and big laughs.
No. I couldn’t commit to this. This life wasn’t for me. So, I did what would later become something of a pattern when faced with stressful sexual situations.
Dodging through the crowd with all the grace and poise of a hammer head shark rolling down a hill, I found my way to the front door. Peering outside into the early hours of the morning before taking a slow and measured, deep breath. ‘Don’t overthink it’ I repeated to myself. ‘Enjoy this moment’. And you know what? That helped. My heart slowed, and I felt a beautifully cool burst of air hit my face in the early hours of this Mexico City morning. Then, turning heel and pushing off on one foot, I exploded down the street and away from the club. Each pounding step on the street below reinforcing that I was now literally running away from my problems.
When I look back on that night, if I’m honest with myself, I’m met with personal guilt. And truth be told I do have one regret about the way I handled myself. I could have, and should have, been the man I was raised to be. I’ll never know what could have been if I didn’t let fear override me. Letting go of an opportunity for personal growth hurts, and while it’s a long shot, I might have found a special place for a certain something in my life. So yes, I do wish I’d at least tried to eat that spicy meal in that Mexican restaurant. I won’t be so close minded next time. That’s a promise.