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A Stranger in San Pancho

It’s 3:30am in San Pancho

Our legs are numb from dancing

And the mezcal has got us wondering

If we’re still drunk or starting to get hungover

I’m sitting at a filthy plastic table

Eating a quesadilla with mushrooms from a can

And frijoles from a plastic tub

But it’s the best fucking thing I’ve ever tasted

Why is this so good?

It’s a combination of factors, she says

I met this woman five minutes ago

I don’t know her name

And she doesn’t know mine

But she looks me square in the eye and asks

Why do we fall in love with people we shouldn’t?

I don’t know, why?

It’s a combination of factors, she says

The stranger

***

Earlier I attended the big dance

In the flesh

But my mind

Obsessing about Maria

She stood out on the crowded dance floor

Pink v-neck, jean cutoffs, no shoes

She looked at her bare feet

And danced with wild abandon

Like a little girl

But with the body of a woman

Her shirt danced, too

Like intertwined lovers

Beneath pink linens 

She was out of place here

At the big dance

With live big band music

But so were we

Gringos, most of us

But a lot of Mexicans, too

From La Ciudad, Guadalajara, Sayulita

We came for the live music and for lindy hop

A dance, a swing dance

I came to San Pancho for a lindy hop festival

But I was running away

Way more than I was coming

***

Earlier, at dusk, I sat on a rickety stool at an outdoor bar

Everything is at least a little bit rickety

And a little bit outdoors

In San Pancho

Maria was tending bar

Yes the same Maria

It was her bar

She was the first person I met in San Pancho

It was earlier, still daytime, already hot, maybe 11am

She was walking a little hotdog with perky ears, no leash

His jet black coat matched the enormous mane atop Maria’s head

That fell in haphazard layers down her shoulders and back

Maria spoke to me, in broken English

I responded, in broken Spanish

She helped me find my room

Assured me no one would ever lock the outdoor gate

Nunca?

No, nunca

Maria was the nicest

And the prettiest

In San Pancho

She was also my neighbor

From my balcony

I could see her front door

Across a patio speckled with garbage

But to be fair to San Pancho

Let’s just call it stuff, not garbage

San Pancho is a small town

So it was more coincidence than scheming

That I would run into Maria three times in one day

But there was a little scheming, too

And it was also a long day

And a long night

I didn’t ever get much sleep in San Pancho

By the time I’d had a cold shower

The only option

And gotten myself into bed

The roosters would already be crowing

False advertising!

Fuckers never wait for sunrise

At least not in San Pancho

Shortly after, the sound of Mexican music

Blaring on little speakers the size of sand dollars

Because everything is under construction 

In San Pancho

At least a little bit

By now it was my last day here

I was starting to get used to it

Amid the roosters

And the sounds of construction

And the tinny Mexican music

I would stare at the broken ceiling fan

Thinking about how much my feet hurt

From dancing

And Maria

See, I had invited Maria to attend the big dance

With the big band

That was my scheme

Back when I was trying so hard to flirt with her at the bar

Women don’t like it when you try too hard

There’s a right amount of trying

And I’m trying to figure out what that is

Because it’s different

For different women

I didn’t think she would come to the dance

Perhaps I was trying too hard at the bar

Tengo novio, she said

¿Dónde está? I asked

You see I was flirting

With Maria at the bar

Her bar

Using flirting logic

How can you have a boyfriend

If he isn’t here right this second?

Maria didn’t know

But her fellow bartender had already sold her out

Given me intel

Maria was available, she said

With a certain look that conveyed

Go for it

There are things you notice

After a breakup

It’s like a sixth sense

Or maybe a seventh

The gift

And the danger

Is that virtually anyone

That’s right, almost anyone

Can be your quarry

At least it seems that way

Whether or not it’s true

Or maybe everything is exactly the same as it always is

But I am different

Seeing things that may not have been there

Signs that I shouldn’t have acted on

At Maria’s bar in San Pancho

Half-sitting on a stool, half standing up

Ready to walk away

Or run

Sipping warm mezcal

I tried hard to get her attention

While trying just as hard to look like I wasn’t

Truth is I had no business being around people

See, I was less than a month off a busted engagement

Serious shit

We had named our kids and everything

Then one morning

The morning after Valentine’s Day, in fact

She fucked me

Good and hard

And then she was gone

Forever

Should have known better

Because she never liked morning sex

Or sex at all, really

But she did that time

The last time

* * *

I came to San Pancho

On a whim

Buying my airfare the expensive way

Missing the sign up deadline

For the lindy hop classes I wanted

And my ex

Her mind was not at all connected to her heart

But I still loved her

It was not even a month

Couldn’t just turn that shit off

She left me

But she also freed me

Now I could do whatever I wanted

Go wherever I pleased

A blessing

A curse?

I guess it’s a matter of perspective

But I wasn’t thinking about any of that

I was only thinking about Maria

And the things we could do

If only she wanted to

***

In San Pancho

And really almost everywhere I go

I’m surrounded by lindy hoppers

They’re in every major city

And many not-so-major cities, too

Yes lindy hop is a dance

Usually

But not always

Between people of different genders

Involving touching

And intimacy

But it’s not an intimate dance

It’s not tango

Or zouk

All dances

On some level

Model intercourse

But lindy hop

At least to me

Feels more like basketball

Than sex

For this reason

I’d been careful

To avoid casual hookups

With lindy hoppers

Getting naked

And exchanging bodily fluids

Other than hot breath and sweat

Could mean no more basketball

And basketball

Is way less complicated than sex

You can even do it in public!

But I couldn’t think about basketball

Or lindy hop

Because all I wanted

Was Maria to agree to a game of one-on-one

With me

She could probably sense my hunger

I needed to know if the boyfriend was real

I had learned something from the last one

And the last one

And maybe even the one before that

Sometimes people aren’t clear with their intentions

Sometimes those intentions change

Sometimes those intentions were never there to begin with

And that’s a really nice way to put it

***

Once I had a five year relationship

Back when I was too young

To have any idea what the fuck that meant

For our final year

I guess we didn’t know it was our final year

Not at the time

We tried an open relationship

We had rules

Everything was okay

As long as we talked about it

So I’m at my grandmother’s house in New York

And my girlfriend’s in San Francisco

And my entire Sicilian extended family is sitting around a long table

Eating a cassata cake

And alternating sips of espresso and sambuca

I’m on the phone with my girlfriend

Not even really sure why

She’s telling me about a guy

Another lindy hopper

Burt, she said

I had seen him around

He was older

And kinda short

When he kissed me it tasted like cigars, she said

Gross, I thought

But with my whole family there

I didn’t say anything

It was so weird, she went on to tell me

When we had sex, his dick wasn’t even hard the whole time

I felt a heat well up inside me

From my also not hard dick

Not at the time

Right up to my temples

I wanted to scream

Throw the phone out the window

Tie the absurdly long phone cord into a noose

And hang myself

Right there in front of my whole family

Over the cassata cake

And the espresso, the sambuca

Well that’s nice, maybe we can talk about it more when I get home

She didn’t break the rules!

We talked about it, right?

But then tell me why the fuck

Why the fuck did it hurt so much?

Maybe I could hear something

That wasn’t being said

Because a few days later

I returned to San Francisco

And she left me

For Burt

Moved to Twin Peaks

Into his apartment

With his cigar breath

And his soft dick

Left me wondering

Was I too tall?

Did my breath smell too good?

Was I too hard?

Since when is that a problem?

Before I had time

To get self-conscious about being too hard

While having sex

I was hit with the worst depression of my life

Moved back in with my parents for six months

I didn’t know how to do a relationship

For sure

And I didn’t know how to do a breakup

Either

And this is why I wanted Maria

So badly

Yes because she was friendly

And beautiful

And waifish

And she danced with her whole body

Not her mind

Yes all those things

But also because by now I had learned

That breakups don’t need daily milkshakes

And six months living with Mom and Dad

Well maybe sometimes breakups do need those things

But this breakup only needed one thing

Maria

***

Maria, Maria, Maria

Maria wouldn’t stop dancing

Looked like a mishmash of hippie dancing

And some kind of country line dance

She smiled from ear to ear

But still looked innocently at her feet

As her hair and her boobs bounced around

In disheveled and frenetic wonder

I was falling for her in every conceivable way

She had brought some friends

The bartender spy

And two other women I didn’t know

I kept watching Maria dance

Every so often I looked away

Just in case

But she kept looking at her feet

As though in a trance

I was distracted by some conversation

Two of the organizers were talking

Who let the locals in?

In a split-second decision

I realized I should come clean

Don’t worry, I invited them!

They’re just some friends of mine from the bar

They won’t stay long 

Now I sprung into action

The song changed, something a little slower, good

Maria, let me show you the dance we do here

She smiled and took a few steps in my direction

I reached out both my hands, which she clasped

With my left hand

I took hers

And placed it on my right shoulder

At the same time

I put my right hand on the small of her back

Pulling her closer, gently

But keeping space between us

Basketball

Not sex

With my left hand

I softly took ahold of her right

And held it at eye level

Step, step, rock-step

Say it with me

Step, step, rock-step

I talked softly

Under the music

My lips nearly touching her ear

And led with my body

Which always follows my heart

She was clumsy

She looked at her feet

But she followed me

And then time folded

Our bodies became one 

We hit a dancer flow

A million songs behind us already

But still she looked at her feet

¡Ahora, mírame!

Our eyes locked

Her smile softened

Her big brown eyes widened

We were still in a flow

Dancing as one form

Was this basketball?

Or sex?

I hadn’t a clue

The pounding in my chest

So hard it was distracting me

In an instant

The moment was gone

Maria’s friends beckoned

Her hands fell to her sides

¿Y entonces, Maria? 

No se

And in a flash the four of them scurried away

Into the dusty parking lot

And down the cracked and cobbled streets of San Pancho

*** 

I didn’t follow them

That Romeo bullshit doesn’t work

Only in movies

I gave them plenty of time to leave

And once they were good and gone

I went out into the same parking lot

And I called my friend Samantha

We were about the same age

Both married to other people for decades

I divorced, she’s still with hers, good for them

Sammie and I were old neighbors

In San Francisco back in the 90s

She helped me return to earth

After my girlfriend left me for Burt

Cigar-mouthed

Soft-dicked

Burt

Sammie and I hadn’t talked in years

But if anyone could understand me now

It would be the woman who understood me then

And “understand me” is a nice way of saying

That she ripped me a new asshole

Look at you! 42 years old?

You’re a grown-ass man acting like a child

Sure, sure, chase tail all you want

But goddammit for the last time

Don’t fall in love so easily

Don’t trust someone until they deserve it

Don’t give someone everything they ask for after three dates

Learn how to say no

And for fuck’s sake

Set some goddamn boundaries!

***

I went back into the dance

It was getting late

The floor was slick

Almost like an ice-skating rink

On a slick floor

With the right shoes

You can dance for hours

Without getting tired

There were people from San Francisco

I largely ignored them

I can play basketball with them anytime

Here I got to dance with strangers

From all over Mexico

And all around the world

Even a darling French couple

Absolute scorchers on the dance floor

Finally I’m worn paper thin

It’s 3:30am

And I wander back into the same dusty parking lot

For more mezcal

And impossibly good quesadillas

That’s where we began

When I met the stranger

I still don’t know her name

But I will never forget

How we marveled at the strange beauty

Of parking lot quesadillas

Born of canned mushrooms

And plastic tub beans

Somehow this stranger

She knew what I needed to hear

Right when I needed to hear it

Why do we fall in love with people we shouldn’t?

I don’t know, why?

It’s a combination of factors, she says, the stranger

But is it?

How can we know who we should love?

And who we shouldn’t?

And why?

People fall in love

By accident

They don’t schedule it in their day planner

Put it on a todo list

Maybe it really is a combination of factors

And nobody can put their finger on it

Maybe we all just get swept up in the moment

And fall in love over plastic tubs of frijoles?

***

My body had already failed a good while ago

And now I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open

So I decide it’s time to leave the dance hall parking lot

And the quesadillas

And find my way back to my room

My cold shower

And the broken ceiling fan

I’m sure the roosters are preparing

To wake me up

Well before they’re due

Those fuckers

At 4am the streets of San Pancho

Still aren’t totally quiet

A few dogs barking, an occasional car, and what’s this?

The sounds of skateboarding?

And giggling?

Maria?

Sure enough

Maria, still barefoot, skateboarding, at 4am

Which was really just stumbling around

On cracks and cobblestones

Crease!

She couldn’t pronounce my name

So adorable

Add that to the combination of factors

I was falling in love over and over again

As if it wasn’t under my control

Perhaps it wasn’t

Esta es mi novio, Manuel. Manuel, Crís es un bailador!

Mucho gusto I said

As they giggled away

Into the dark, dusty San Pancho night

The boyfriend

He’s real

I wanted to think about this

But suddenly a man on a moped was nearly on top of me

I didn’t see him coming at all

He stuck out a bony finger and said

In a very thick accent

Go home

Esta bien, amigo, voy a ir a casa

No! Go home, right now

I got the message

But I didn’t really know what to do

Other than keep walking to my room

I was at least half way there already

So that’s what I did

One cold shower

And a few hours later

When those fucking roosters woke me up

Again

I stared at the broken ceiling fan

Again

And I thought

Not about Maria

Not this time

I thought about me

I thought about a man

Who fell in love too easily

Then he came to San Pancho

And never loved the same way again

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