by Hannah Harlow

Art by Peter Roman

Art by Peter Roman

I had not come to Mexico to mop floors. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing in Mexico —I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish—but I knew it wasn’t this. The youth hostel in San Miguel de Allende required each person staying there to contribute to the daily chores, and since I was the most recent arrival I had the unenviable task of cleaning underfoot—as opposed, say, to watering the plants or folding sheets.

Emily had been staying at the hostel for three months already. If she had a chore assigned to her, I never saw her do it. Emily and I quickly discovered that we were only a year apart in age, from towns in Massachusetts 30 minutes apart, and we both listened to Phish and Ani Difranco. She was looking for an apartment with three other people from the hostel but had recently seen a place that would be perfect for two, for us. So she ditched her other friends and we went to talk to the landlady. After my third night in the hostel, Emily and I moved into the first place I had ever called my own. I was 18, had just graduated from high school and deferred from college for a semester so I could travel. I wanted to leave the country; Mexico was what I could afford. Emily had just deferred for her third semester; she couldn’t seem to leave Mexico behind.

The furnished one-bedroom, second-floor apartment sat adjacent to the landlady’s roof, a peach terra cotta surface that looked south to the spires of La Parroquia, the Gothic church in the center of town. Inside we had a small bathroom with rust brown tiles that seemed to attract large red spiders; a kitchen, in which we cooked noodles in tomato sauce sweetened with sugar and stocked the fridge with nothing but Negro Medelo beer; and a bedroom with two single beds separated by a small table. The blankets on the beds were thin and, as October progressed, proved to be entirely inadequate. Instead of buying more blankets down the street at the market, we simply layered on more clothes, drank more, and shivered through the pre-dawn hours.

In the mornings, I checked my shoes for scorpions before slipping them on and walking up and down the cobblestoned hills, past El Jardin, to the art institute where I took classes in ceramics, photography, and Spanish. For lunch I ate burrito gigantes slathered in guacamole and sour cream, stuffed with refried beans and rice. Despite all the hills and the fact that I walked everywhere, I gained ten pounds in two months. In the evenings I met Emily at home for dinner and a few beers before heading out to Mama Mia’s, our favorite bar.

Emily had a lopsided smile that showed her crooked teeth and made her eyes pull down on the sides. She remained pale after months in the intense Mexican sun. Her favorite outfit was a pair of blue hospital scrub pants and an orange T-shirt with a clown’s face on it, which I had bought at the dollar-a-pound thrift store back home. (My daily attire was not so dissimilar: a pair of black-and-white checked chef’s pants and a 1986 Chilmark Road Race T-shirt I had stolen from my friend who had actually run in that race when she was eight-years-old.) Emily’s hair was a nest of dreadlocks—a persistent, but pleasant, oddity to most of the Mexican men around town. She wore headphones whenever she walked to class or the store to drown out the their catcalls. “Chica!” they hollered, but she would not respond unless it was to occasionally yell, “I’m not blonde!” She told me once that technically “chica” referred to a blonde white woman; I was never sure if this was true. Emily had studied Spanish for four years in high school before moving to San Miguel. I had studied German for four years in high school. I trusted Emily in all things.

The Mexican men were not the only ones charmed by Emily. She knew all the expatriates in town, including a 14-year-old runaway who had renamed herself Star and lived in a stone hovel for $50 per month, the house full of Americans who owned a television and VCR, the guy who knew the guy who could take you out into the desert to find peyote, and the people who lived in the apartment once visited by Neal Cassady—we stopped by to see his writing preserved for fifty years on the wall. At Mama Mia’s she associated with a mix of Americans and locals, dancing to salsa music and accepting free drinks from strange men. I tagged along, sipping at all the extra sangrias and margaritas that piled up on our table. Often I went home alone, stopping on my way through El Jardin to buy Mambas, those brightly-colored chewy candies of my childhood, from a street vendor.

No matter how late we stayed out, I never skipped school. Emily took classes elsewhere, but soon she started dating a guy named Paco, who owned a local nightclub. She loved saying his name. “I didn’t know people in Mexico were actually named that,” she’d say and then repeat his name to herself again and laugh. Emily’s school schedule was less full than mine, especially when she stopped attending class altogether to hang out with her new boyfriend. At Paco’s club she began doing cocaine and staying out all night. She tried to set me up with Paco’s friend, Turtle, but I wasn’t interested.

My Spanish tutor, Carlos, told me the best way to learn the language was to go to the bars at night, get drunk, and converse with the locals. I did. In the bar, after a few beers, I was fluent in Spanish. The next day it all disappeared.

I hadn’t seen much of Emily in a few days when she came home one afternoon with a bunny so small it fit in the palm of my hand.

“What are we going to do with it?” I asked. It was gray with black eyes and resembled a field mouse.

“The boys selling it on the street probably weren’t over 10-years-old,” Emily said. “If I hadn’t bought it, they would have killed it.”

“How old is it?” I asked. It ran up the sleeve of my shirt and tickled my neck.

“We got the runt of the litter.”

“But how old is it? A day? Two?”

I pulled the rabbit out but it quickly found its way under my T-shirt again.

“I couldn’t let him die,” Emily said.

We named it Pulposito, or “tiny octopus,” because it seemed to be everywhere at once.

That night we both stayed home trying to devise a way to keep Pulposito warm. A box lined with socks did not seem to do the trick. It was early November and the nights had grown cold. If we couldn’t stay warm with our inadequate blankets, how could a tiny bunny be expected to keep warm without help? Emily cradled him against her body in bed and fell asleep that way, even though I was afraid she would crush him.

A few hours later, she woke me. “He’s shivering,” she said. “I rolled over and left him uncovered. What should we do?”

“Let me take him for a little while.” I tucked him against my neck and lay still for hours, until the chickens began to make noises in the street below and cars, most of them ancient VW beetles, began to rumble by, and the light behind the thin curtain turned from orange to yellow.

I went to class.

When I came home, Pulposito was shivering again. I took him out of his box and cradled him in my cold inadequate hands. Emily showed up a few minutes later with a dozen beers.

“You left him? You should have waited for me,” I said.

“I had class,” she said. I couldn’t remember the last time she went to class.

We held Pulposito and stroked his soft, downy fur. His thin ears remained pinned against his head. He ignored the eyedropper of milk we forced between his lips. He sat in our hands instead of running up our sleeves. The shivering continued long into the night, as we sat at the table playing cards and drinking beers, taking turns holding him. Later Emily snuggled with him in her bed across from me and we fell asleep.

At 4:00 AM I woke up and discovered Pulposito in his box, dead, on the kitchen table. We had a narrow balcony off of our kitchen and I sat out there with my knees pressed to my chest, my feet propped on the wrought-iron railing, until the sun came up, until the store downstairs and across the street opened, the same store where we bought Frosted Flakes—“Zucaritas”—and huevos and leche. The owner stood in his doorway waiting for customers. He looked up at me and smiled, the same smile he always gave me when he was unable to understand my accent. “Huevos.” It seemed like such a simple word until there was nothing to point to, no way of showing him what I meant.

Eventually Emily woke and plodded into the kitchen. I watched her prod the dead rabbit with her finger.

“He’s dead,” she said.

“I thought you knew.”

She stared at Pulposito. Behind me the sun filtered through the television antennas and laundry lines that littered the roofs of buildings across the city.

“I thought it was just a dream,” Emily said.

That night Emily resumed her schedule with Paco. Those Americans, the ones with the TV and VCR, they had taken one of Pulposito’s siblings. Emily saw them that night, ran into them in the street. The next afternoon, after I had returned from the Institute and Emily had woken up and come home to shower, she told me: a hot water bottle. That’s how to keep a baby rabbit warm. Those other Americans had called a vet.

Just before Thanksgiving, Emily returned to the United States. I was supposed to stay through Christmas, but I changed my flight to leave in early December. As soon as Emily left, San Miguel lost its charm. No more free drinks at Mama Mia’s, far fewer salsa partners. I’d run up a massive phone bill calling various friends in the United States, calling anyone I could think of just to chat. It was 1996 and I didn’t have an email account yet. For the first time in my life I was out of shape, friendless, broke, and homesick. I hated to admit I couldn’t make it on my own, so I persevered for a few weeks. I attended an ex-pat Thanksgiving with a mariachi band. I watched a guy I’d met at salsa dancing lessons—disturbingly—gore a bull as an aspiring matador at a bullfight on the outskirts of town. I drank beers and played cards with a girl named Anne-Laure from the same town as Emily. Then, finally, I packed it in and flew home.

Almost immediately, my brother forced me on a few runs with him. Soon I was running and skiing regularly. Vegetables re-entered my diet. I got a job tutoring a family friend’s kid. Then, miraculously, I fell in love for the first time.

A few months later, in February, I started college in Vermont. Emily was supposed to start college then, too, at a small school in Arizona, but she deferred for yet another semester, and moved back to Mexico to be with Paco. We exchanged letters for a few months and then we lost touch.

Somehow I doubt she ever made it to college. I graduated, got a job, got married, had kids.

I google her name every once in a while, but I have found no trace of Emily in fifteen years. I picture her in Mexico still with an adopted stray dog at her side as she walks the dusty cobblestone streets, always uphill. The dog wears a red bandana at its neck. When Emily reaches home, Paco waits for her, the stems of two cold beer bottles laced in his fingers. And there, too, are a couple of chickens in the yard, scorpions hidden in the toes of shoes, and a cage full of rabbits by the window—in the sun where it is warm, always.

Hannah Harlow has an MFA in fiction writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She promotes books for a living and lives in Boston.