The trip to San Miguel de Allende reset my brain, sharpened my eyes, and filled my heart in unexpected ways. Memories of my previous visit to this beautiful town 39 years before were vivid when I first arrived. I had traveled here from Mexico City in January 1981 with my best friend, on a bus filled with families, crying babies and live chickens. I was in college and had just gotten over the flu and the shocking murder of John Lennon – an early jolt of mortality. Mexico warmed me, despite the flamboyant painter we stayed with, who drank too much and shouted at me that I had “no love” in my voice when she listened in on my long-distance call to my then-boyfriend. Turned out she was right about the “no love” part, though it would take me months to learn this. On that trip, I escaped an East Coast winter, drank good tequila for the first time and walked the winding streets with my friend, hashing out pressing issues of young adulthood. I went home with some black and white photos and a tiny filigree doll bed made of painted lead with a smiling white clay skeleton inside it.
These memories fade now like old snapshots, replaced by the colors of the present. The hotel where I am staying with fifteen other women is a former brothel, now called Casa de la Noche. In the style of so many Mexican houses, it has multiple stairways, interior courtyards, statues of angels and flower trellises. It is a beautiful maze where I am happy to lose myself. The rooms that used to carry fictitious names of the working girls are now named for winged insects and birds.
We write together, walk for miles, photograph everything in color in the buttery light, eat jicama tacos and drink mezcal. Some of us are married, some are divorced, some widowed, some single. Some are mothers. Some are not. Mortality is a solid truth in all of our lives. We have held it close and wrapped our arms around it. We have all known many kinds of love – the absurdity and complexity of it. Secrets shared become poetry. We feel lucky to be here, and say so – often.
We wander the narrow cobblestone streets where the primary colors are ochre and burnt sienna. I text my best friend with pictures, wishing she were here with me again, now. I buy gifts for loved ones back home; a wooden angel mask with fat red cheeks so freshly painted they still give off a varnish scent, metal hearts with wings, and a tiny blue shot glass with a tinier glass cactus inside it, but mostly my gifts are the photos I take, the words I’m writing. A salsa dancing class leads to an evening of dancing in the street. I am happier now than I was at 20, when I was so wrapped up in myself. Now I am able to see all the hues and textures, to really listen to the language, the music, the roosters in the morning, and crickets at night.
A collection of colorful paper mache dolls decorates the fireplace in the lobby of the hotel, each doll representing one of the working girls of the long ago brothel. I wonder if the names painted on the dolls’ breasts are the names of the actual women. What must their lives have been like? On the wall are sepia photographs of the women too, with their 1930’s makeup and pin-curled hair, and clippings describing the former Madame Turca’s house as the cleanest and most reputable around. The girls were required to have regular doctor visits and received support in raising any unplanned children. How far removed their lives seem from my own privileged one. Did those women speak among themselves and share dreams and terrors as women do, as we have been doing all week? Did they comfort one another? Yes, I think they did.
I think that I don’t believe in ghosts, but as I stretch out luxuriously alone each night on my oversized bed in the turquoise and orange Dragonfly Room, I wonder about the different sisterhood that once lived here. There is a quiet calm in this place now. If there are spirits here, or any lingering energy, I sense strength and camaraderie, along with the inevitable sorrow and hardship. It is an imagined glance through a secret window, as evanescent as the sparkle of glitter on the costumes of the inanimate wide-eyed dolls, red painted lips silent, their secrets safe within these walls.