I once had a Mexican girlfriend.

I don't say "once" in the sense that it was long ago, since it was recently enough that I still sometimes wake up thinking she'll be lying next to me. I say "once" because so many times when I would walk through town holding her hand, or lie in bed holding her while she slept, I felt like a handsome prince with his beautiful princess, and the word "once" just reminds me of the "once upon a time" that such fairy tales start off with.

Of course, fairy tales have their dark and gloomy side too, like Snow White's poisoned apple, or Little Red Riding Hood getting eaten up by the wolf, and this one was no exception. It ended badly, but at least I have a feeling that the problems that forced me to let her go were just due to some personality flaw on her part, and didn't stem from any cultural traits common to Mexicans. Because whether she meant to or not, she planted and nurtured in me a fascination and respect for Mexico and its people that I expect will last far longer than our relationship did.

Her name was S___, and she was tall, with dark hair, bright eyes, and skin the same perfect shade of brown that I love my coffee to be after just the right amount of milk -- not the cafe au lait of Europe, but the leche con cafe of Mexico that I preferred before I knew they had a name for it. Her face was not classically beautiful, but a simpler kind of beauty that spoke largely of the native blood that was strong on her mother's side of the family. She hated that her hair was loosely curly, as much as I loved it, so she would often keep it wet so that it would stay straight. She was 23, which in retrospect is no surprise: ever since I turned 23 myself, all my girlfriends have been 23. I keep aging, but my girlfriends don't. No wonder I had to break up with her before her 24th birthday.

She grew up in Tampico, in a comfortable middle-class family in a country where the middle class is better off than most of the population. S___ was brilliant, and had attended a college-preparatory high school affiliated with a university which had already guaranteed her admission. But with her brilliance came an undeniable independence, and rather than follow her father's plans for her life, she left home after finishing high school and insisted on making it on her own -- she took off with a friend, and the two girls took jobs as exotic dancers in exotic (to me) cities like Cancun, Monterrey, and finally Tijuana.

We were introduced by a mutual friend, after a fashion -- well actually, he encouraged me to go see her dance in one of the small smoky bars in Tijuana where she performed, and told me he thought we'd get along great. He was right; she and I hit it off from the time we met when I first invited her to sit and talk and join me in a drink. She even got in trouble for me that first night by blowing off the rest of her performances, so she could sneak me back up to her room to spend all night talking, looking at photo albums, playing cards, and just getting to know each other. Looking back, I think she might have expected that we'd sleep together (in either sense of the term) that night, but I'm cautious in my old age. I ended up going back to my own hotel room to sleep that night -- or rather, that morning, since the sun was coming up -- but not before I gave her my number. I admit I didn't expect her to call.

Ironically, when I called my friend, the one who had told me to see her, he was outraged at the fact that I had spent so much quality time with her. He fumed about how he was in love with her, how I was risking our friendship, and eventually (after she did indeed call me back) said that if I continued to see her, he could never again lay eyes upon me after such a betrayal. Thinking back now, he may have been more interested in showing her off to me than having me get to know her, but his plan backfired since she expressed the type of interest in me that she never did in him. Which path to take was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make -- while I hadn't gone back to see her yet, S___ and I had started to spend hours on the phone (thank goodness I still worked for Sprint at the time, or the international rates would have bankrupted me) and were thoroughly enjoying discovering how well we got along, and how strange it was that a gringo and a Mexicana had so much in common.

When I finally had to make a decision, I fell back on one of my fundamental rules of life:When you have four cards to a straight flush, don't fold. No matter what it costs. I felt like that was my hand, and if it would cost that friendship to see the fifth card, I was going to pay it. I didn't get the winning hand this time, but given another chance, I'd do the same thing.

I began spending most of my weekends in Tijuana, getting a hotel room and spending as much time with S___ as I could. She still worked nights, so I would stay up all night reading or working so that we could go to bed together in the morning and fall asleep holding each other. It was great to spend weekends with no computer, no email, no obligations except the early Monday morning drive to work -- but the best part was just being with her. It was great while it lasted.

I worried sometimes when she would justify things with phrases like "because that's how my people are." It only drew attention to the wide cultural chasm between us, but it was a chasm I was constantly trying to bridge. When getting to know her, I was surprised at how much of the German and American cultures in me had already taken root in her before we'd met, but over time I found much of her culture taking root in me as well. I began reading books about Mexican history, Mexican culture, and Mexican people with the fervor I'd had for science fiction novels in my youth. I started studying Spanish, even though I didn't need to, with her, as her English was quite good.

My father also tried to point out the cultural divide I was coming up against, but I reminded him that it was a problem that he had already conquered -- he was a schoolteacher's son from Kentucky, but married a young, beautiful German immigrant girl. Their marriage lasted thirty years, and produced two wonderful children (if I do say so myself), who grew up with both strong American and strong German culture. And interestingly, the more I read, the more I found that Germans and Mexicans have a lot in common. I felt that if, god forbid, something went sour with our relationship, it wouldn't be because our cultures were different.

I never asked much of S___, just her respect for me, and the time and effort I took to be with her. After all, I had to cross an international border to see her! I tried to point out that if she needed time to do other things on a weekend when I was visiting, she just had to let me know, and I could make other plans and have other things to do. As the months went on, though, that just started to break down. I'm not sure just what caused it -- maybe it was drug use she was hiding from me (although she did admit to having used crystal meth "for a little while") that helped her "forget" to keep me in the loop, or maybe it was a desire for more income, since there was money she could be making during the times she spent with me. Maybe there was something about her "Mexicanness" that kept her from really understanding the one thing that it was so important I get from her -- or a feeling that "he'll just understand."

But gradually she started spending less time with me when I came down to visit, and more time with a few select "customers" from the bar. It wasn't that that bothered me; I knew what kind of work she did when I got involved with her. But what did bother me was being told that she'd be spending plenty of time with me on a given weekend, and then being told when I arrived that she was too busy after all. Or eventually, one weekend in early April, not even being told -- just left sitting by myself in my hotel room, without seeing her or even getting a phone call, for a whole weekend. Fortunately I had brought a few books to read.

At the end of that last weekend, as I was leaving the hotel, I just wrote her a note and taped it to her door. I simply said, "I love you, but that will pass. I just can't be with someone who thinks I'm this unimportant." When I had crossed the border and driven home, I erased her phone numbers from my cell phone. I haven't called her or seen her since that day in April, nor have I heard a word from her. But she, or at least what I loved in her, is still a part of me.

I don't regret having gotten involved with S___, although I wish it hadn't cost me the friendship that it did. I sometimes think about our time together, and wonder if there was something I could have done differently, to make things work out. Was I supposed to have offered to financially support her? Was she scared off when I started offering to bring her to the US so she could go to college here? Were my gringo ways not macho enough? Or did she just get tired of me? I don't think I'll ever know.

What I do know is that being with her changed me fundamentally. While I have plenty of experience with the varied cultures (and some languages) of Europe, Mexico has for most of my life been just "that place to the south" where they made cheap products and cheap labor, and was the original source of the type of food you get at Taco Bell. But after spending hours on end being shown pictures of Tampico, hearing stories of her hometown, eating in out-of-the-way local eateries (not to mention sidewalk food tables), walking in local parks, and having her tell me of all the historical and archaeological places in Mexico she wanted to take me, I felt a love growing for a country, a culture, and a people that had produced someone who brought so much love into my life. Even now that she's no longer a part of my life, I still study Mexico, its history, and its language, and feel an empathy for my neighbors to the south.

I once sat down and pondered what the common thread is amongst the women that I have found attractive in the past, including those I've become romantically involved with. Some things were obvious: I like dark hair, I don't like especially short hair, and I prefer small breasts rather than large ones. But eventually it struck me that I like genetic variety -- in a basic sense, I find women with mixed racial backgrounds (such as European and Asian) to be more attractive than those who are more "pure". This, in turn, explains my attraction to Latin women, including those of Mexico: the predominant ethnic background is a mix of European with the indigenous population (which in turn is an offshoot from Asia).

S___ was one of those mixes, although it seemed there was more native than Spanish in her background. And it's a strange thought to keep coming back to me now and again, but with my northern European heritage added in to the mix, I think we would have had beautiful children.

So this particular Mexican girlfriend didn't work out in the end, but she changed my life, as few people really can. And maybe somewhere out there is another Mexican girlfriend who I will someday turn into a Mexican wife.

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