Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Chasing Sandy
by Michelle Peterson

I had an affair in Mexico last week. It was a press trip. It was a few days away from home, away from hungry mouths and discarded clothing, a house remodel and a small business. Four days sans my nineteen French students. Quelle chance! Three nights putting only myself to bed, no "brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, ok, Iím counting to three!" There would be no quick patter down the hall at 3:00 am. No waking Yosemite Sam at 6:45 a.m. Not even a boyfriend. No one, but no one, on this trip knew me. I reinvented myself. I was someone new, someone less tired. I was someone who could break all of the rules. And I did. For four luscious days I chased after a woman. Yes, a woman. A mom, as a matter of fact. A quintessential, sixty-four-year-old mom. Short, no-fuss hair, sensible shoes, thick, magnified, never-miss-a-thing glasses, loquacious lips and warm, chubby hands.

I remember the first time I heard her voice. It was in the van on the way to the hotel, "Are you going the right way? Is this the right way to the hotel? Are you shewa?" She must have thought she wasnít being understood by the Mexican driver as her voice peaked in volume on the last three words. I could only see the crown of her preternatural red head in the front seat. The other writers bristled.

We arrived at the hotel and the warm winter sun glittered on the reflecting pool in the open-air lobby as we were handed margaritas. I could smell and hear the majestic Sea of Cortez beckoning me, reminding me of the open, limitless possibilities. I didnít know the protocol, but she did. She boldly refused the 11:00 a.m. cocktail and started her rounds to introduce herself -- sticking out that plump, strong hand, gawking solicitously over her heavy glasses. "Iím Sandy from South Carolina. Who are you?" "Iím Michelle from Texas." "Oh gawd, Michelle you are so pretty. Isnít she pretty?" nudging the token tall, handsome man on the trip. I loved her. I needed her. I desired her immediately.

Flights were cancelled and delayed that morning and the group was incomplete. The schedule was thrown off and so we were left with the first afternoon to ourselves. This came as a relief as I had just read our itinerary and it was packed -- gallop here, rush there, swim, golf, snorkel, eat, eat, eat. I took complete advantage, tossing my clothes into the closet (folding and organizing are for people at home), donning my swimsuit and heading to the beach. The air was cool and the water cold. The red flag was up, so I didnít venture out even though the nice Mexican man said, "Itís safe, senora" (where did my senorita-ness go?). I jumped around on the rocks awhile, laughing at some crabs, gathering small bits of coral for my daughter and then headed back up to the heated pool. Who knows? Maybe Iíd see Sandy. The thought made me self-conscious and so I walked nonchalantly up the ramp. I sucked in my stomach, trying to make my feet fall flat so that my extra-medium derriere wouldnít wobble too much. I wanted to look pretty. I dropped my sarong and stepped into the pool. At the far end I noticed the token handsome man lowering himself into the warm water: tanned skin, rippling shoulders, sporty hair, dimpled, spirited smile. I wonder if he knows where Sandy is?

Ten years ago, I had a sweltry travel affair in Thailand. Itís hard to believe I had the energy for it. But I was younger, and even in the land where the ubiquitous heat draws the life out of you, I swirled in passion for eight days. I was melting around my $3 a night guesthouse one evening when Jean Michel from France showed up. He was staying in the neighboring auberge and liked the pad thai better at mine. We dined together and then ran through the rain to Khao San Road to see Schindlerís List. I donít remember the movie. It was good, right? "My neck, it ees sore. Have you any Tiger Balm?" (ooh, a word of advice: be really careful where that goes). What followed was a steamy week of sex.

But this trip was different. I didnít need sex. I didnít need romance. What I longed for was conversation with a person who would advise me and commiserate with me. I desired ease and comfort. I wanted someone to rub my back, hold my hand, reassure me that my children will someday hit the toilet when they pee, and clean up after themselves if they miss.

Our first dinner was poolside where floating candles and stars flirted over towering palm trees and infinite miles. I was able to sit next to Sandy (it took a little work and I am really sorry about the spilled wine). She asked me about my kids and if the divorce was hard on them. She wanted to know about my life in Austin and if Iím happy. She looked into my eyes and she reached out and put her hand on mine! Oh flutter, I didnít know if Iíd be able to finish my flan. At one point in the conversation she mentioned that she wasnít sure what to do for activities the next day, and some eavesdropper suggested she go golfing with that virile man. She turned towards him, asking him his name and if she could take some photos of him swinging a club. "Youíre so handsome. Are you a model? Can I spend the day with you tomorrow?" Did she wink at him? Oh my god, I wish he wouldnít smile at her like that. "So, Glenn, tell me about your life in Florida. What does a single hunk like you do there? Do you have a girlfriend?" I felt lonely.

The next night the group gathered at a restaurant in Cabo San Lucas (the small fishing village I read about actually is here, itís just flailing under the chunk of American suburbia that was airlifted and dropped on it). Sandy and Glenn sat together and told golf stories. Glenn had taken Sandy for a ride in his cart, careening down a hill, making her whoop. She kept commenting on the phallic cacti on the course and Glennís derriere as he would bend over to pick up balls. She winked at one point and told him she didnít even have film in the camera. Ha ha. I wanted childishly to be fawned over.

After dinner, we moved the party over to The Giggling Marlin where you can down a drink called "Skip and Go Naked" and suck Jell-O shots off of just barely clothed bodies. We were the reluctant writers, trying to wear our faces like press passes, wanting these ridiculous gringos to know that weíre here just to get the story. We were seated in the front of the crowd right at the feet of the male dance show. It wasnít long before we saw Sandy up there with some hottie Mexican boys, gyrating her thick middle to the imperishable sounds of Abba. My eyes never left her as she and her dance partner exchanged pawing and her thick glasses steamed up. Once in a while sheíd laugh and cover her mouth like a child caught cussing. I loved her more! Surely someone with such gusto and confidence could help me fix some things in my life.

The rest of the trip was more of the same. Our odd love triangle struggled for air, or at least validation. Sandy continued to brazenly pursue Glenn, telling him, "Iím old, not dead!", and I continued to wrangle a seat here and jockey a conversation there. She was a counselor before she was a travel writer and I took note of my astute infatuation. She candidly advised me on any subject Iíd put forth. I felt palpable warmth and intelligence radiate from her and I wrapped myself around it.

For the whole trip she was always in front of me. The front seat of the bus, up front on the dance floor, walking in front of me, making decisions in front of me. And on our flight home, the final leg, she was rows and rows in front of me. I knew I wouldnít get another chance for enlightenment. This was the end of the affair.

Longing feels like heartache. It churns in your gut like a tequila worm, and lingers like a hangover. And even though itís reaching for something not yet realized, it smacks of termination.

The plane dropped toward Houston, from sunshine into radiant clouds, then gray, then rain. My emotions dove with the iron bird. I was dissatisfied. I knew in the front of the plane sat someone who could guide me over the next decade of parenting. Someone who could comfort me. I became aware of how much I miss that in my life and how damned hard it is to find. I had thoughts of enduring cultures that share life at a vital level. I wished I could live closer to my family.

I didnít see Sandy again. We got caught in the customs shuffle and I was late for my connection, trading out my sandals for running shoes just as I handed my bag to the airport worker. I knew that she had a long layover, and if I missed my flight, I could have one more dinner with her alone. Running towards my plane felt like running into a tsunami. I kept my brow low and moved forward, persevering. I told myself that fate would make this decision, as it was time for me to go home and resume my crazy, over-committed life. When I got to my gate, the door to the jet-way was closed. I stood momentarily, taking in the situation, holding my breath. I could feel the excitement mount as I turned to walk back towards the main terminal. Then the ticket person called me. "What flight, ma'am?" Slowly, "Um... Austin." "Quick! We can get you on!" They opened the vault and pushed me down in.

I was sweaty from running when I boarded the crowded, hot plane. I sat down and cried.

This week Isabel, four-years-old, has wanted to read The Velveteen Rabbit over and over and over. Iíve pleaded with her to pick something else; itís such a sad story. She finally said to me, "But Mom, I can handle sad. My happies are strong."

Iíve realized that this was the true lure of Sandy -- strong happies. Itís her essence. And I believe I used to have this too -- before I had children, before life swirled into huge circles, before all of this crushing responsibility. So, in honor of Sandy and what she helped me remember, Iíve started shuffling commitments and promises -- unwinding some I never should have bothered with and seizing those that are sacrosanct, especially the ones with my children. Iím refusing people who seem to need me more than I need them. Itís been good. Iím also trying to tighten what family relationships I have, to lean on the support that offers itself so freely. Iíve been emailing my real mom and my sister. And just to keep in touch, just to be polite (wink), I have, of course, been sending a few to Sandy as well.
Michelle Peterson is an Austin mama, writer and owner of the Groovy Moon Clothing Company, www.groovymoonclothing.com