I was a foreigner—an American teaching English in Puebla, Mexico at a prestigious private high school. Safe and respected, I was enjoying my third year there, teaching the English Literature component of the International Baccalaureate Program. I had met and married a native Mexican while living in the United States, and we decided to leave the US after George Bush was reelected. Our daughter was born in Puebla and registered as a dual citizen. We were the Owens family.
Our lives were rich in comparison to our existence in the US, where work usurped most of our time and you needed an appointment to visit family or friends. Aside from the death-defying chaos of driving, and the rampant corruption of the Mexican government, life was peaceful. We stayed within our bubble, had friends, were invited out often and still had plenty of time for each other.
# # #
Nelly was a quiet, pretty Mexican girl. She hid in the back of the classroom and lifted her head just enough to meet my eyes when I lectured, or to smile when I made a joke. Yet I was inexplicably drawn to her. After class, she was always the last out, fixing me with her best smile.
“See you tomorrow, professor Owens.”
It was after one of those farewell smiles that I decided to find out more about her—just out of curiosity.
In my office, I had access to folders filled with student information—academic records, special needs, and contact information. Nelly was sixteen—a straight A student, and she lived in a prosperous gated community. There was a recent picture affixed to the corner of her academic report. She had short, black hair that she spiked up. Her eyes were big, brown and soulful looking. She was smiling in the picture. In my mind I picture the rest of her—petite, wide in the hips, and a full backside that drew my furtive attention. After I caught myself staring at it a bit too long, I went to work, custom designing a lesson plan for Nelly’s class.
It was a poetry unit, filled with a variety of styles and offering students opportunities to write their own. When Nelly turned in a poem to me, short and sweet.
You cannot hide from me
we have found each other
on a lonely trail
leading toward desert hearts
that is how it always starts
I gave her high marks and encouraged her to continue writing poetry after the unit was finished, and provided my personal Email for her to send them to me. That very evening she sent me another poem.
finding you in the dark
just in time
I was a target
your arrow hit the mark
It was simple and I had an abhorrence for rhyming poetry. Yet her words touched me. If before I feared deeper waters, I now replied, plunging heart-first:
two voices cry for freedom
in darkness touching, craving sight
in the dawning of the light
Click—message sent—like a speeding bullet, a probe blasted into space, hoping for signs of intelligent life. She was very smart, this beautiful young Mexican lady. My conscience screamed, danger! What if she rejects you and become a laughing stock? What if she doesn’t?
The next day I searched her face for a hint that she received my exploratory missive. That afternoon as I graded papers at my desk—Inbox (1):
Your poem was beautiful. You are my favorite professor and I have learned so much from you. Someday I will tell you a secret.
Then she wrote:
Nelly—honest, sensitive, pretty, Nelly. I had taught literature for fifteen years, the last three at a private high school in Puebla, Mexico, and never had stirrings for a student—the dizzy release of dopamine. My guilt immediately began constructing cement walls, attempting to create a border between us, yet they crumbled quickly.
I was home when her answer arrived. Poetry is subjective, open to interpretation—a condensation of thought and feeling. She wrote:
Two voices are lifted where judgment cannot sit
Perhaps I can hide beside you, protected by your wings
Where it is safe to fly and to forget—
To taste the goodness your kisses will bring?
What should I have done? I wasn’t strong enough to listen to my conscience. My heart wanted what my brain couldn’t have. I composed:
You have me now,
clandestine, I am yours
as sand secretly holds shells from the sea
You have me
Click—message sent with trembling fingers. How would she respond? Was I just an experiment, or would she allow my discretionary worship? It was a delicate matter. She held the power to destroy or create.
I searched the Internet for Mexican laws concerning relationships with minors and found Article 180. In Puebla the consenting age, one of the lowest in the world, was twelve—punishable only if a complaint was filed by a legal custodian or the minor in question. Six months to four years of prison time awaited those who obtained consent through means of deceit. In Spanish it was known as the crime of estupo. My conscience bastardized it into estupido, and my stupidity had no bounds, protected by a yearning heart.
After a few minutes I received her reply:
I have you, want you, have a match to set the fire
One afternoon, we will kindle our desire
There would be many firsts with Nelly—first embrace, first kiss, first passionate words. Nelly—her thighs were strong pillars that guarded her altar, and I wanted to worship there—to feel her youthful skin beneath my fingers and to taste all of her.
It was time for boldness, to lift the veil, suggest a black hole—somewhere safe where sighs, whispers, the sounds of love-making were uninhibited. I knew of such places—Mexican motels where couples pulled into a garage and the world closed around them—steps led up into the seclusion of the bedroom. Time stands still in motels, layers of shyness are peeled away with clothing to reveal us.
A black hole. I wondered how she would react to the idea. Would this become a game she was no longer willing to play? Would she spill to her friends in exchange for momentary fame, until I am called to the carpet in front of an administrator? Yet my heart mocked me, diverting blood between my legs. Clouds of desire formed thick layers over my brain.
I used a direct approach: Nelly, let’s spend an afternoon together. I know a safe place where time stands still.
Click—message sent. I am quivering.
“Dinner is almost ready,” my wife says and I nearly fell out of my chair.
“Okay, thanks honey.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. You startled me, that’s all.”
Nelly returned almost immediately and the chime of an incoming message made my wife pause for a moment. I held my breath, and then she returned into the kitchen.
Inbox: Yes—tomorrow after school. I will make an alibi to be home late.
# # #
I am not a religious man—never imagined the accusing finger of God shaking in my face. Yet guilt laid thin sheets of concrete over the sweet memory of the following Friday afternoon with Nelly even as I reenacted every detail from memory:
I remembered how Nelly’s hand trembled as I led her up the stairs from the motel garage and into the bedroom. Her breath was hyphenated as I took her into my arms to kiss her. Her body was an earthquake as I removed her clothing. A complimentary condom was waiting on the bed-stand and another three resided in the pocket of my pants. I guided her to the center of the bed and focused on a tacky lithograph of Don Quixote to keep from spilling prematurely when I pushed inside of her.
Afterward I dropped her on a side-street close to her home. She kissed me and gazed into my eyes for a long moment.
“Do you love me?” She asked.
What else could I could have said?
“I’ll write you all weekend.”
She got out of the car and I watched her walk away, looking back to wave now and then.
I drove home to my wife and three-year old daughter. My mind was such a swirl that I missed the turnoff and had to drive ten miles to turn around. Nelly can put you behind bars, I thought, she has control now. My passion satiated, reality pounded at my temples with a ball-pean hammer.
I woke up Saturday morning wondering how many of Nelly’s friends already knew. Could seventeen-year-olds keep secrets—especially life altering ones?
I was poised to become the anti-hero in a Greek tragedy—my mortal weakness dangling between my thighs.
“Are you okay?” My Mexican wife saw that I was completely preoccupied.
It was the beginning of the lies. From here on out, falsehoods rained cats and dogs and I struggled to keep from drowning in deceit.
Nelly needed closure, reassurances, guarantees:
Oh, how I want you inside me again. Perhaps Monday we can revisit our black hole, my treat this time. Let me know so that I can make up another alibi.
I couldn’t answer her.
Then, after a half hour, she wrote again:
My Love, I can’t wait to see you again. I am yours. Don’t ever worry about anyone finding out. I’m still tingling where you cleaned me with the warm wash-cloth.
Click—the message was sent, heart bursting with love and an aching flower.
“Darling, do you want to go to the market with us?”
“I have a bit of work to do,” I lied.
“Do you want anything?”
Oh, I thought, there is so much that I want.
That Sunday night after our daughter was asleep, my wife and I made love. Guilt poured from me within the familiar vessel of her body.
# # #
Monday before classes I read part of her last message again—don’t ever worry about anyone finding out. Here was an opening to suggest ways in which to practice maximum discreetness. I wrote:
Please don’t feel bad if I ignore you in class. We have to be very careful. Other students are very perceptive about such things. You should trash all of our correspondences including this message and any future ones. I will have to see about today.
The usual items waited on my desk—papers to grade, forms to fill out. The new message chime sounded:
I deleted all evidence of our relationship. What are your plans for this afternoon?
I checked my wallet—a $500 peso bill reminded the motel cost $250 pesos. My fingers hovered over the keyboard.
# # #
That morning in class, Nelly wore a top that pushed her small breasts to the tipping point. A short skirt showcased the fullness of her backside and the short, smooth brown legs that would encircled me that afternoon. Her eyes were lasers. She gave knowing little smiles that corrupted my lecture about Catcher in the Rye. The boys in class noticed Nelly’s new look, stealing furtive glances, appraising and speculating on their chances with her.
Nelly examined us in the bathroom mirror after we showered late that afternoon. Two foil wrappers lay on the bed-stand. She said that she imagined waking up together and making love before breakfast. I reminded her of out age difference and she it was unimportant—that friends her age seemed children now. Experience had separated her from them.
# # #
Nelly had a few close friends and they knew something had changed—she was preoccupied, disinterested in the usual gossip. On particular friend, Cecile, guessed what was making Nelly daydream during classes. She had noticed here enigmatic smiles, had seen my eyes soften when I glanced at Nelly. She spied doodles on Nelly’s notebook—abstract hearts floating above surrealistic swirls. Cecile invited Nelly out shopping one afternoon after school.
“I have a ton of homework—rain check?” Nelly answered.
“Okay,” but it wasn’t okay. There was something going on and she would get to the bottom of it.
Cecile hung back after school—followed Nelly two blocks down a side-street and around the corner—watched Nelly slip into my car—the quick kiss she gave.
# # #
That Sunday Nelly wrote:
I’m lying on my bed, watching the ceiling fan turn. I love you so much. I was glad you forgot condoms and that the motel didn’t have any in the room. I liked feeling you spill inside me. You don’t have to worry, it’s close to that time. Maybe I should take the pill.
I wrote back that the pill was a very good idea. Then I took my wife and daughter out for a Sunday breakfast. When I returned another message was waiting:
Ceci knows. She saw me get into your car and kiss you. She promises not to say anything. I didn’t tell her anything. Just that you had offered me a ride and that I kissed you on the spur of the moment.
I knew that the following day the entire school would know—perhaps the whole fucking world. My head ached and my heart wouldn’t stop thumping in my throat. Think, think, think— damage control! I typed:
Stay calm. We will get through this if we think it through.
Click—message sent—with a prayer to whatever god is in charge of undeserving requests, promising that I will never ever, ever, ever—
An hour went by before he replied:
I’m with my parents, so I can’t write much. Ceci promised she will keep quiet. She is my best friend and I trust her.
Christ Almighty, I thought—dead in the water. I considered calling in sick. The students would all be staring at me, challenging me with their eyes, threatening my life with side remarks? Yet if I didn’t show, it would be an admission, and surely a call to the carpet would soon follow. Perhaps Nelly’s parents would be there—the authorities, ready to take a statement. Oh, Christ.
# # #
I later learned that Nelly got emails and phone calls from a dozen friends that same night. I’m sure that most of the conversations went something like, “Come on, we’re friends, I won’t say anything I promise What was it like?”
Nelly tried to lie—tried her best to shrug it off, but the gossip had already deferred celebrity status and placed her as an icon for bourgeoning sexuality.
They finally got to her. Nelly’s fifteen minutes of fame began.
# # #
Monday morning the phone rang while I was showering. I shut off the water to listen. My wife’s voice, “Yes, I’ll tell him—goodbye.”
She stuck her head through the bathroom door, “Dr. Galinda just called and said he wants to meet with you this morning before class.”
I nearly passed out. Air was unavailable to my lungs. I wrapped in a towel and padded into the bedroom. My wife was brushing her hair out and saw that I had turned ashen.
“What’s happening with you? Is something wrong at work?”
“Nothing—just got dizzy for a second.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing bothering you?” Her intuition cut through my bullshit. Yet I clung for dear life.
“Let’s go to Cholula this weekend. We haven’t been for a long time.”
# # #
I couldn’t swallow. The lump that formed in my throat wouldn’t allow. Such a small thing, I remember thinking, to swallow without pain—to feel a heartbeat where it belonged. Yet there I was, driving in the fast lane, past the cutoff I used to get to work—a turkey with its head on the block. My cellphone chimed with an incoming message. I glanced down at it. It was Nelly.
Drifting into the middle lane, I struck a semi-truck which pushed me into the guardrail.
# # #
I won’t bore you with the details. My wife dutifully tended to my needs for about a year until I could move about again on my own. A formal complaint from Nelly’s parents left me with little hope of ever teaching again, although my lawyer says that I won’t see the inside of a jail cell. My wife wants a divorce and my friends and family have abandoned ship.
Tomorrow I have an appointment with my lawyer, but I am thinking instead to drive toward La Quebrada in Acapulco—to watch the cliff divers—to join them up there after a few drinks.