..First Glyph

February 12
9 a.m.

A pretty young girl fidgets one table away from me. She waits for her friend who has gone into the Sanborns bathroom. She wears a black cardigan sweater, a plaid gray skirt, white knee socks and shiny black thick-heeled shoes. She is dressed as girls across this city and all over Mexico are dressed at this hour--in her school uniform. Though the colors will vary, and the boys will be wearing pants instead of skirts, all the uniforms will resemble this girl's. They are compulsory attire for students.

The girl's hair falls shoulder length and jet black and full. She looks at me only when I look away from her, and only then probably in curiosity. For a woman to consciously exchange a concerted glance with a man in Mexico is for that woman to invite that man to approach her. So a woman will rarely meet a stranger's eyes twice. I like this. The signal is very clear. Unequivocal. If she looks at you, and then looks at you again, she will willingly converse with you. You know this. In the United States the signals are not so clear. In fact, becoming accustomed to this Mexican protocol can lead a man to grief in the United States. I once read a Mexican invitation in an American girl. I approached the American girl. I was quite roundly snubbed by the American girl. At the snub, of course, I realized my mistake, but not without some execrations for the vagaries of romantic foreplay in the US. There is no form to it in the States. You never know where you really stand in the beginning. You are always groping. In Mexico...take Lety, for example. From across the dance floor in that Guadalajara discotheque she glanced at me. I had already noticed her. So I noted the look. But this first look does not mean so much. I waited. Then came the second look. No smile in it, you know. Not a wink or a batting of the eyelash or anything so uncouth. But an intensity does sharpen it. And I thought I saw this intensity. It seemed to me something was happening. But a distance separated us. And my timidity demanded confirmation of my suspicion. So I waited. And came then the third look. Unmistakably, it came, to me, though still it did not smile, though still it was flat, non-committal. I knew then that Lety would receive me. I went devoutly to Lety. And that was that. Of course, young gringa travelers in Mexico have to face the obverse of this phenomenon. Accustomed to looking about, as American girls are, to meeting a man's eyes boldly, to smiling at people freely, they are always having men descend upon them.

A second pretty young girl emerges now from the Sanborns bathroom. She wears a black cardigan sweater, a plaid gray skirt, white knee socks, a crucifix round her neck, and black thick-heeled shoes. At the table she meets her friend. They take up their satchels. They depart.

This is not the same Sanborns I dined in last night. A kilometer or so nearer now my hotel, I sit. They are ubiquitous, as I said. This Sanborns was once a Denny's. I relished a rather delicious plateful of mole enchiladas here once when it was a Denny's. Another Denny's, too, sat just around the corner, on Balderas. I frequented both of those Denny's and yet another Sanborns when I worked here for the English language newspaper The News. I would arrive an hour or so before work and drink coffee and read. It was how I steeled myself for that job, for that job I was so ill-equipped for, for that trauma of my disillusionment, my repeated hopeless failures. I'm not sure even now my Spanish would be up to that work. Anyway, then I would continue on those terrible last couple of blocks to the newspaper. Those Denny's no longer exist. They are all Sanborns now.

Remarkable the difference one block makes. Here I am in a city two hundred times more populated than Jalapa, and my hotel, seedy as it is, is quieter. This because it's one block off a busy street instead of right on a busy street. I got to sleep around two. I slept well.

Crossing to the street upon which this Sanborns rests, waiting for a break in the traffic of La Reforma as I did, I again confronted the grandness of Mexico this morning. Reforma cuts a wide tree-lined and statue-studded diagonal across the face of the city. And, with a half dozen lesser streets joining it at that intersection, I must have appeared a man hopping hot coals, or, from the air perhaps, a printing flaw on a giant asterisk. Immense, the conjunction is, swarming with a mad pace of traffic. As I made my way, I could not help but see the narrow cobbled lanes of Jalapa before me, the dusty back roads of Cholula. The immense and miniscule were before me again: The vaulted cathedral versus the roadside shrine; the Zócalo's vastitude versus Eloisa's cramped Veracruz plaza; the ten-story mural versus the eight-inch retablo of private devotion; or, a black stretch limousine versus that legless beggar scooting about on a castored plyboard. Even the contrasts impose here. Like the sweet bedlam of an orchestra's tuning, they are, against the grate of a lone snare.

I did not expect this journaling to become so compulsive. In the beginning I had to force myself to make entries like this one. Today I could not resist this one. They say Delacroix continually journaled. I wonder if he wrote so much because he never married. Aloneness contributes to the impulse. If I had someone to talk to I would not be scribbling so much. But that's why I'm here, I guess. Ah, Dulcinea.

Made to choose a favorite Mexican artist, I would be made to choose David Alfaro Siqueiros. His sense of drama inspires me. The violence of his palette appeals to me. An imposing personality, too. He led a romantic life. Since I first conceived of my unfinished novel it has opened with a mural of his--Death to the Invader. And I will soon again study other murals of his at the Palacio de los Belles Artes. It is to his museum, though, that I go today, the one just outside Chapultepec Park. The museum reportedly exhibits some of his paintings on canvas. This I find irresistible. Only once before have I seen a canvas of his--that in a traveling exhibit, in Monterrey. Even that self-portrait was dramatic. Deeply foreshortened, Siqueiros appeared to reach right out of the canvas for the viewer. His fingertips were even built up with impasto. This is how I will spend my day off.

The little toe of my right foot blisters. These shoes, which I bought less than two weeks ago, already show signs of wear. Today by metro I go.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers