by Ben Tanzer
We were in Mexico because of my mother. It was her idea to take Adam and me south of the border. Her vision was that we would see the great artists of Mexico City—Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Kahlo—and then hit the beach in Cancún. But things started going wrong and, on our third night in Mexico, a country where everyone actively discourages you from drinking the water, we all decided to order shrimp scampi.
I can’t remember what the meal tasted like; I can tell you however what happened the next day at the airport as we prepared to catch our flight from Mexico City to Cancún. It started with Adam saying he had to go to the bathroom. We waited, and waited, but as the minutes passed it began to seem less and less likely that he would return, and at some point I went to look for him. The bathroom was dark and quiet, and Adam was nowhere in sight.
I walked up to the row of stalls and called out his name.
“Adam, you still in here?”
“I’m over here,” Adam said, sounding like a junkie looking for his next hit.
“Hey man, what’s going on?” I said as I worked my way to his stall.
“I have diarrhea,” he said, “I didn’t make it all the way to the toilet.”
“Shit,” I said, my expletive matching the mood, “are you okay?”
“I need another pair of shorts,” he said, “and I need them now. Some guy has been pounding on the door and screaming at me in Spanish.”
I ran out of the bathroom and sprinted to the nearest newsstand. They had no shorts. Nor were there any at the duty-free shop. I wandered the terminal; no shorts were to be found. This was not the airport of today, mini-malls full of Starbucks and Benetton stores, massage tables and Polo golf shops. This was pre-globalization, and it was an entirely different time and place. The first George Bush was in office, MTV actually showed music videos, and Barry Bonds was still a string bean hitting no more than 30 homeruns a year for the Pirates. This airport had the basics—the International Herald Tribune, cheap rum and imported cigars—and that was it.
I walked up to a young traveler type, one of those guys you see at every airport. They have one backpack on their back where it belongs and another on their chest, where it does not. They’re wearing dirty, faded Columbia shorts and scuffed leather sandals of indiscriminate origin. They have a scruffy, not-quite adult beard and disheveled near Jew-fro hair. Their t-shirt has some obscure reference to Machu Picchu or some island, somewhere, where people drink hallucinogenic tea before dancing all night beneath a full moon.
The guy can be from anywhere, but he tends to be from Australia, doing that walkabout thing they do.
“Hey dude, excuse me,” I say.
“Yeah mate, he says.
Bam, called that.
“My brother had some bad shrimp,” I say, a little panicked, “and he didn’t quite make it to the bathroom, and now he needs some shorts, and I’m hoping you might be willing to sell me a pair.”
I want to be cool, but I’m not—I’m desperate. If this guy won’t help me, we’re fucked, it’s that simple.
“Sure man, no problem,” he says, smiling, “you can have them for free.”
I want to hug him, but that seems too personal—plus how am I going to get around his front pack? Still, I want to do or say something.
“You rock brother,” I say, “and that Pat Cash, cool dude, handsome too.”
“Right,” he says turning away, “good luck with everything.”
I dash back to the bathroom and pass Adam the shorts under the door. He’s gaunt and ragged when he finally comes out but feels fine by the time we get on the plane. My mom though can’t say the same.
“I’m feeling very sick,” she tells me as we take off.
“Let’s see if they have some Alka-Seltzer,” I say.
“No,” she says, “that won’t help.”
This response is expected. My parents don’t believe that medicine is ever helpful, they won’t take anything, and for years all we have had kicking around the medicine chest is an ancient, unused bottle of aspirin and a home colonic that no one has ever opened. I think this has something to do with showing weakness and an aversion to products and brands and anything corporate, though mostly they don’t like being told what to do, and the act of taking medicine somehow acknowledges that someone, somewhere, off behind a curtain is doing just that.
I stop the flight attendant, who then brings my mother the Alka-Selzer.
My mother drinks the Alka-Seltzer.
“Wow, that’s incredible, it really works,” she says.
The Alka-Seltzer incident becomes our touchstone for every discussion on over-the-counter medicine from that point forward.
After we land I become so sick that, after making myself vomit for an entire afternoon, I am forced to lie in bed for two days. I watch Mexican soap operas, drink bottled water, and while I should be dreaming of bland foods like white rice and toast, comfort foods, we didn’t do that when I was growing up; we didn’t follow rules, we dreamed what we dreamed, and so I dream of chicken fajitas.
I do get healthy though, and outside of the moment days later when we actually have to question whether or not Adam was dead, the trip was really quite lovely.
I should pause here to say that we thought Adam had drowned while jogging on the beach when the tide had come in but he hadn’t returned.
My mother, at this point healthy herself, sunburned and lovely, her hair still all black and long, was convinced that Adam was dead.
“What am I going to tell dad,” she said over and over again.
I didn’t want to believe Adam had drowned, but when the hotel finally said they would look into sending out a helicopter to search for him I started to wonder.
Moments later when he walked in barefoot and tired after getting lost and being forced to walk back to the hotel along the highway, I realized just how terrified I had been.
I also realized that it might be time to go home. Which we did, at this point smiling and full of love, the good memories far outweighing the stomach problems and near drownings.
At least that’s how I remember it. Memory is a funny thing, and I wonder if Adam remembers the trip the same way I do. I e-mail him the draft and ask him for his thoughts.
He replies immediately.
Your memory of the story is actually a bit more sanitary, pardon the pun, than what I remember. My memory of this story is that you, Mom, and I went to the airport and we divided up the jobs. You had to do one job, mom had to do a second job and the third job was that I was going to wait in line for all of us to check in.
Quite a long line in a hot and crowded airport, I might add. As I was waiting in line recognizing that I was doing a job that would not only affect my travels but yours and Mom’s as well, I felt quite nauseous and had a strong sense that I had to use the bathroom. I said to myself that for me to get out of line and then for you and Mom to come back from your jobs and for us to have to start at the back of the line again was just not acceptable. We might lose our flight. So I waited for what seemed like an eternity, probably only about five minutes, until I felt a variety of explosions racing through my body.
Not knowing what to do or where I was in the airport, I raced outside, where I vomited…and had diarrhea simultaneously, painting the Mexican sidewalk a variety of colors, but everybody around me seemed to not be phased at all. I raced to the bathroom. And from that point your story is the same as my memory.
Perhaps it is my recognition that I will not become famous in any other way, or perhaps it’s my hours of watching the Jerry Springer show, but either way reading this story does not embarrass me. I need to run, nature’s calling.
There is much I can say here, about memory, and diarrhea of course, but I think it’s most important to note that this is something we shared, and it is now an ingrained piece of family folklore, like your first words or the night you were caught with a half-naked girl in your room. We didn’t do over-the-counter medicines or bland foods, we didn’t have rules, we were rarely careful as children, or necessarily even cared for all of the time, but we had love, lots of it, and adventure, and we now have stories, many, and a shared history we all revel in.
And who wouldn’t kill for all that, despite the trade-offs? No one I know.