Can’t Buy Me Love

Blasting down highway 95 through the Mohave Desert on a northerly course toward Las Vegas Broken Dreams International Airport, my thoughts turn to the distant past. This seems to happen every time I travel to Mexico. Deja vu all over again as Yogi would say. Growing up a long stone’s throw from the southern border, I became a Mexicophile at an early age. This evening my wife and I will board a late night flight into the tropical central highlands. About 8 hours including air time and a layover at War Criminal International Airport in Houston, and we’ll be on the ground in Leon, Guanajuato.

For those of us who spend most of our lives in the belly of the beast, Mexico can be a real eye-opener. Everywhere there are exciting new sights, sounds, and smells to embrace, culinary taste treats. Occasional jostles out of our comfort zones. Life lessons to be learned. Even we who claim to be open-minded are somewhat blinded by lifetimes lived within the borders of Empire. Our destination is San Miguel de Allende, which we’ll reach in an hour or so by way of a shuttle from Leon. We’ll be there for Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and La Calaca Festival (The Skull Festival). Perhaps we’ll learn a little something about life and death. Perhaps not. At any rate, the festival goes back untold hundreds, maybe thousands of years to an ancient Aztec observance dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Spanish Christian conquerors did their level best to eradicate the holiday, but with no success. The very least I can do is celebrate a failure of the conquistadors, and help a few dead souls on their spiritual journeys.

As we pass through Searchlight, Nevada and the sun dips behind the barren peaks of the McCullough Range, a myriad of Mexican images race through my mind. First light of day, base camp at 14,000 feet on Nevado de Toluca, January 1, 2000. The morning sunlight illuminates two tiny mounds in the distance. The one on the right seems to be spewing smoke. I recognize the shapes. They are Iztacchuatl and Popocatepetl. “Popo” is erupting. They are about a hundred miles away. Two of Mexico’s three highest volcanoes in the first light of a new millennium.

The upper reaches of Glaciar de Jamapa on El Pico de Orizaba, roped to four other climbers, three of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness just a few hundred feet short of the summit at 18,000′. After a little vomiting, disorientation, and mild hysteria we abort the ascent. Returning to base camp without bagging the summit we are happy to have survived to climb again. An unroped German climber lost his footing near the top yesterday and would be sent home in a box.

Darkness as the lights of Las Vegas come into view. The old Scion xB merges into city traffic as I cast a glance at my wife, sitting next to me as she always does. My best friend and confidant. Nearly 40 years together and we’re still in love. She looks at me with a smile of excitement and eager anticipation of the adventure that awaits. My mind wanders again to Mexico and a memory from the past. A woman, not much more than a girl, who inadvertently taught me what it means to be a man. I never even learned her name, but am grateful that our paths crossed so long ago.

Spring of ’66. Ray, my friend and partner in crime, is in the passenger seat of my ’58 Austin Healey Sprite. The Beatles are singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” on the radio. We’re both 17 and about to be released from the prison called high school. On a mission to become men. There’s really no delicate way to say this. We’re heading toward the red light district in Nogales, Sonora to lose our virginity. To get laid. I have an uneasy gut feeling on our southerly route through Tucson. Something just seems wrong.

We’ve been to Nogales before. It’s a damn long way from Phoenix, but it’s early in our drinking careers and there are apparently no laws about serving minors south of the border. Having explored the bars of Canal Street on several previous trips, we know that the price of a Carte Blanca or a Tecate is a dollar. Zombies and Singapore Slings are two bucks. The going rate for a piece of ass is a five spot. Five dollars for the transition into manhood. A bargain at twice the price.

Chain-smoking Marlboros does little to hide the fact that Ray and I are just boys, but anything’s worth a try. The tavern is dingy, loud, and smoky. We belly up to the bar and order up a round of beers, and another. The third Tecates arrive with a dose of courage, and Ray strikes up a conversation with a lady about twice his age. They share a drink, and disappear down the dark hallway at the back of the room.

There are still a dozen unattended female “employees” in the room. My gut instinct is to go outside and wait for Ray to finish his dirty deed, but I’ve committed to this thing. Scanning the available merchandise like vegetables on Safeway’s produce rack, I spot the woman who will teach me the ways of the world. She’s probably about 16 years old. Short, slight, shy, obviously a newcomer to her profession. She hides behind an older woman as I approach.

I tell her mother, aunt, co-worker that I’d like to buy a drink for the senorita. My new tutor reluctantly emerges from hiding and we order drinks. She’s on the clock, the bartender’s watching, and time is money, so she motions for me to follow. Down the dark hallway to the last room on the right. She flips a switch and a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling casts a dim light on our dismal accommodations. In her plaid skirt and freshly-ironed white blouse she looks like a Catholic school girl. She may be younger than 16. Possibly fifteen, maybe fourteen…I’m feeling a wave of nausea.

Sitting on the mattress she unbuttons her blouse, throwing it on a nearby chair. Raven-black hair cascades upon bronze shoulders. Looking at me for the first time, tears well up in her eyes and her lip quivers. A single tear streaks down her perfect face, dripping off her chin. As she reaches around to unhook her bra I realize that I too am crying.

“No, stop. I’m so sorry.” It’s all I can muster. Her expression turns from deep sorrow to bewildered joy in an instant. I pick up her blouse and hand it to her. Reaching into my pocket, I find the five dollar bill that she’s earned and ten more. She takes the money and stashes it in her bra with a smile. As I start to leave the room she grabs my arm to stop me. Pointing to the bedside clock she orders me to sit for a while.

Side by side, we spend the next half hour together. Silently she takes my hand, squeezing it with all the love and gratitude she can muster. A half hour passes sweetly and quietly. No words are spoken. She never releases her grip on my hand. As we finally prepare to leave the room, she utters her first word, kissing my cheek with a sincere “Gracias”.

On our trip back to Phoenix I hear all the sordid details of Ray’s encounter. My lips are sealed. He assumes by my smile that I got laid. That night in the backstreets of Nogales Ray lost his virginity, but I became a man. He contracted a venereal disease and I took a giant step into adulthood. I learned a lot from the nameless young Mexican girl. Women are not sex toys. Nobody chooses prostitution as a profession. It is the last resort of girls born into desperate poverty. Whether a woman is brutally raped or forced to have sex because of her dismal economic situation makes little difference.

Ray and I didn’t see much of each other after high school graduation. He joined the U.S. Navy and participated in the murder, mayhem, and rape known as the Vietnam War. I protested in the streets of Phoenix, burned flags, and refused military induction. He became a Navy Recruiter after the war. I remained, and will remain until I die, a bleeding ulcer on the belly of the beast. Hopefully Ray has figured out by now that capitalism has no place in the bedroom. I learned nearly a half century ago that money can’t buy me love.

Mexico awaits. We’ll leave behind only love, footprints, and cash…take away only photographs and memories. Now if I can just make it through TSA without backhanding somebody.

John R. Hall, having finally realized that no human being in possession of normal perception has a snowball's chance in hell of changing the course of earth's ongoing trophic avalanche, now studies sorcery with the naguals don Juan Matus and don Carlos Castaneda in the second attention. If you're patient, you might just catch him at his new email address, but if his assemblage point happens to be displaced, it could take a while. That address is: Read other articles by John R..