By Carolyn Getches
After one week in Guanajuato, Mexico I could make it home from school without a map. My favorite route took me down the grand sandstone steps of La Universidad de Guanajuato, past the serene bronze statue at Plaza de la Paz, and through the colorful and carefully tended Jardín de la Unión. As I walked along the narrow streets, I saw a young man standing in front of a symmetrical red stucco building with royal blue trim. A small crowd was gathered in front of him and a boombox played Bob Marley near his feet.
He was holding one stick in each hand and using them to toss a third stick in the air, one that was flaming on both ends. The muscles in his ropey arms tensed as he caught the fiery stick between the other two. His dark brown dreadlocks swayed back and forth with his choreographed movements, tapping his tank top and catching on his layered necklaces.
He threw the stick up in the air again. This time, he fumbled the catch and the lit stick fell to the ground. I’ve never had the constitution for embarrassment, mine or otherwise. When I was in the seventh grade, I walked straight into the large glass door of a movie theater. My forehead and nose struck the thick sheet of glass, and a loud thud echoed between my ears. I stood still for a moment as I pieced together what happened. Then, I turned around and sprinted into the parking lot, abandoning my friend who was already at the ticket counter. She found me twenty minutes later, hiding behind a car with snot and blood covering my upper lip.
The once mesmerizing stick slowly rolled to a stop. I tried to send the performer a telepathic message. Run. Run! He didn’t. I looked away and focused on my shoes—white pleather sandals a half size too small. I knew they would pinch my feet when I bought them, but the imminent blisters seemed a worthwhile price to be an eight, not an eight and a half. Applause interrupted my internal critique of my too wide feet. The young man skillfully lifted the fallen stick and smiled at his audience. Slowly, he reclaimed his rhythm. I joined in and clapped my hands. I wasn’t in awe of his trick; I was in awe of his lack of shame.
I treated shame like a beloved security blanket. I wrapped myself in it, certain it would keep me safe and prevent me from revealing the messy parts of myself the world could not love. My shame instructed me to be quiet and small, and ensured that I always had an escape plan. Despite the fact that conforming to these demands felt like a full-time job, incidents like my collision with that rigid glass door had taught me that rebellion would only bring pain. To me, freedom never seemed worth the risk. That would change during my summer spent studying abroad in Mexico. No matter what I said, how I looked, or what I did, I would be thousands of miles away by the fall. There was no need to look for a way out; my return flight was already booked. Suddenly, rebellion wasn’t quite so scary.
“Your problems will go right along with you,” Julie said from her structured office chair. “Wherever you go, there you are.” She elegantly crossed one slender leg over the other.
“Right,” I said. “I know.” Sweat dripped down my back, glueing my T-shirt to the soft green couch I was sitting on. That was not what I wanted to hear.
This was my second counseling session with Julie. I had just finished my freshman year at Barnard College in New York City and had been back at my parents’ house for two weeks before my mom demanded I see a therapist. While at college, my compulsive tendencies and body dysmorphia had intensified into a full-fledged eating disorder. After months of eating almost nothing at all, now I was binging on every carb in sight. I refused to leave the house, preferring to sit on my bed and stare. It didn’t feel like I was crying, yet weak tears continually leaked down my cheeks so slowly they were cold by the time they touched my skin.
Everything Julie had said up until this point had felt true—the suggestion that my erratic eating was about more than a lack of willpower, the notion that my family was more complicated than I thought, and the idea that there had to be a life that was better, deeper, than the one I was living. Each time she spoke one of these truths my whole body buzzed in recognition. Now that I was deciding if I should spend my summer at home in Colorado or studying abroad in Mexico, I wondered if she was right about this too. It is impossible to leave your problems behind?
The internalized voices of my parents said the answer was no. Travel was the type of solution that made sense to them—two people grounded in next best steps and an “it could always be worse” philosophy. In part, this was motivated by their own experience with mental illness. As kids, they each had a parent who suffered from debilitating depression and my drastic swings in mood and weight scared them. They wanted a fix that was reliable and quick. I had a feeling they also knew it would be cleaner to tell their friends I was studying in Mexico, rather than locked in my bedroom crying cold tears.
“It’s just for the summer,” I said. “I think I’m going to go.” I ignored the disappointment on Julie’s face, and instead wondered if I was sinking into the couch more than her dantier clients.
Two weeks later, I was waiting on the curb outside Del Bajío International Airport with a dozen other American college students. On the whole we were taller, younger and more aimless than the surrounding travelers. Most of the students were white with the exception of two Asian students—one Japanese, one Chinese I would later learn—and one African American student. We were even more uniform in our financial means. By default, we were kids who did not need to work over the summer and could spend or borrow an additional $4000 in tuition. Still, I was sure I would not fit in. I tilted my head to suggest I was listening to the announcements coming through the airport’s speakers. The woman’s voice was muffled and fast. By the time I translated one word, I had missed four more.
A large white van picked us up. I stared out the tinted windows at the endless green fields that lined the four lane highway, and eavesdropped as my peers exchanged names, hometowns and years in college. I carefully composed my verbal contribution in my head, but said nothing. Soon, the land gave way to rolling mountains and colorful residences crawled up the hillsides.
We arrived at La Universidad de Guanajuato for orientation. The intricate stone spires and carved wooden doors made it look more like a beautiful church than a school. I followed my vanpool inside and sat down on the cold tile floor next to a woman I overheard introduce herself as Louisa. She had strong, thick legs compared to her delicate arms and wrists.
“Do you know who your roommate is yet?” she asked.
“I don’t have one,” I said. “You?” I guessed her jeans were a size six and felt relieved that mine were a four.
“I’m with Haruka.” She gestured to a petite woman with long black hair sitting nearby. Haruka waved and I had to force myself to smile back. She was a size two, maybe even a zero. As I fixated on the sharp points of her shoulder blades, I felt my body expand. My thighs puddled on the floor and the meat on my back swelled beyond the band of my bra. In my disordered state, I was unable to let bodies exist separately from my own. Instead, I treated other women purely as tools to determine my own worth. And, thinner was always better.
“I think they ran out or something,” I said, offering an explanation that wasn’t asked for.
In truth, I had begged my parents to pay the extra fee so I could have my own room. I was terrified of sleeping near another human—a fear that began when my older brother told me I snored when I was seven, and solidified when my freshman roommate asked me to use my asthma inhaler to reduce my nightly wheezing. As with so many things, sleep was a surrender of control I could not afford.
“You’re going to love it here,” Paul said, addressing the noisy group. His nose was covered in freckles and his strawberry blonde hair flipped up behind his ears. I counted the eclectic bracelets stacked on his right wrist, a sign of white male worldliness I recognized from the arms of my brother and his friend when they returned from a backpacking trip through South America.
He introduced himself and gave us a brief history of the town. Guanajuato used to be a successful mining community in colonial times. Guanajuato was an important city in the fight for Mexican independence. Guanajuato actually means hilly place with frogs. Each time he said “Guanajuato” his hypercorrect pronunciation displayed an ownership that was hard to take seriously after learning he spent his entire life in Ohio moments earlier. He was wearing 11 bracelets.
“The most important thing is that you guys are safe,” he continued, “You need to be smart here.” We were instructed to never walk home alone, take taxis, get drunk or drink the tap water. While he explained these rules, his eyes darted between the clumps of young women in the room. It seemed these warnings were for our benefit. Our instincts were not to be trusted.
I was told many of the same things before I moved to New York. Every time an adult urged me to enjoy the city and everything it had to offer, they followed their comments with cautionary tales of women who thought it was okay to jog by themselves at night, only to end up mugged or raped in Morningside Park. Yet, once I arrived in New York, I found the time I spent alone beyond Barnard’s walls to be the strongest antidote to the internal criticisms that played in my mind on a loop. You’re fat. You’re ugly. Gross. Awkward. Weird. I loved escaping the campus’ competitive environment and walking down Riverside Avenue before the sun rose. I’d watch well-dressed couples stumble out of cabs and into prewar condos, while shop owners hosed down the sidewalks in preparation for the day. The smell of wet pavement had a sense of routine and inevitability that I craved. Unsurprisingly, I often encountered lingering stares and vulgar gestures from men in these quiet moments, reminding me of the warnings I’d heard in the past. I’d drop my gaze and hope that by the time I raised it again, they were done looking. Like most girls, I was used to waiting my turn.
Paul moved on to the class schedule. The sounds of shuffling feet and murmured voices made it clear that I wasn’t the only one thinking about other things. Mentally, I weighed the potential costs and benefits of taking his advice. In the end, I walked home alone, took taxis and got drunk. I didn’t drink the water.
Within a few days of meeting one another, Louisa and I discovered how much we had in common through long, intimate conversations. We would not have admitted it, but subconsciously we knew the friendship was unlikely to last past the summer, and that firm end date emboldened us to expose our true selves. We were both overachievers who suffered from perfectionistic tendencies and familial pressures of prestige. For us, the aspect of studying abroad that felt foreign was not the unknown country, but the unknown freedom. Our Spanish classes ran from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon during the week. We were expected to have breakfast with our host families before class and lunch with them after. Beyond that, our time was our own. There was no TV, no internet, no homework, and—besides a weekly phone call at a pay phone—no parents. To pass the time I began taking naps in the afternoon, a habit my mom claims I resisted even as an infant. With the structured meal schedule and lack of expectations, my eating stabilized for the first time in a year. I had not lost a pound, and yet I experienced brief moments of contentment and joy—rewards my eating disorder had promised only weight loss could bring. Already, my time in Mexico was threatening the fragile and flawed logic of my illness.
Louisa and I carefully carried our lattes to a small table on the patio of what was quickly becoming our favorite cafe. We did not want to disturb the pristine frothy hearts floating in our mugs. Normally, I never allowed myself to consume liquid calories, but after seeing Louisa order a latte days earlier, that rule seemed arbitrary and inconvenient. I had watched her sip the bitter steamed milk, thinking she looked so sophisticated and worldly. I wanted to be those things too. It was becoming harder to dismiss the small piece of me that yearned for an identity more complex than a number on a scale.
“So how long have you and Andy Number Two been dating?” I said. Louisa’s first two boyfriends were both named Andy, so her current boyfriend was Andy Number Two.
“Almost a year, but it feels longer.”
“Have you slept together?” I asked, thrilled by the directness of my own question. I hoped my words sounded more relaxed than they felt in my mouth.
“No, I can’t decide if I want to or not. It doesn’t sound that great.”
“Yeah, me either. Mostly because guys suck.”
“I’ve given blowjobs though,” Louisa confessed.
“Same. And you know what? Not so great.” We laughed into our lattes, happily ruining the perfect foam hearts.
For a finale, the young man with dreadlocks sent the flaming stick twirling through the air. I held my breath as it fell towards the ground and sent him another telepathic message. Don’t fuck up. Don’t fuck up. He made the catch with ease. The crowd gave him one more round of applause, before dispersing down the winding sandstone streets. He stuck his sticks under his arm and walked right up to me.
“Where are you from?” he asked. His strong accent about killed me. After studying Spanish for seven years and still feeling wholly inadequate communicating in a second language, I admired the experience it suggested.
“The U.S.” I said, praying that was the right answer.
“You look like you are from Francia,” he said. “Because your hair.” That morning, I’d precisely split my wavy brown hair into two messy braids.
“Really? Thanks.” I’d never been to France, but I thought of French women as very slender, so I took the comparison as a compliment.
“I’m Yael,” he said, grinning. I noticed his top teeth were perfectly straight and on the bottom they were angled and tight, and I liked knowing one of his details. “Come to Bar Fly tonight.” He pointed to the red building behind him. “I’ll be working.”
“Maybe,” I said.
He lightly tugged on the waistband of my pleated bronze silk skirt. “Come.”
That night, I dragged Louisa to Bar Fly. Reggae music poured out of the second story windows and flooded the street. We took turns applying a shared tube of tinted chapstick.
“That’s it?” she asked. “It looks a little run-down.” Earlier, I hadn’t noticed the peeling red paint and tarp-covered roof.
“It’ll be fun. And if it’s bad, we can always leave.”
The air grew increasingly herbaceous and sweet as we walked up the stairs. The bar was packed with local twenty-somethings, international students and backpackers in town only for the night. Being in the space I felt both hipper than ever before, and completely out of place. I ordered us vodka sodas with lime, and pretended I wasn’t looking for Yael.
Three hours later, Louisa was throwing up in a toilet that had likely never been cleaned. I’d seen enough movies to know it was my job to keep her hair vomit-free. I rubbed her back and hoped she’d feel better soon—I’d spotted Yael a few times and was anxious to talk to him.
“Am I gross?” she asked.
“So not gross. This is all part of it.”
\Without knocking, Yael opened the door and poked his head in the room. “Necesitas?” he asked, offering me a stack of paper towels. He must have known the bathroom did not have any toilet paper.
“Our savior,” I said. Louisa heaved again, and Yael was gone as quickly as he came.
After Louisa was confident that she had thrown up everything in her stomach, we made our way to the door. I was nearing sober and felt foolish for thinking Yael was interested in me for anything more than a potential tip. When we got to the stairs, I felt strong arms wrap around my waist. Before I realized who they belonged to, Yael kissed me. The incessant light beat of Manu Chau’s “Me Gustas Tu” blared through the sound system. He tasted like citrus and smoke.
My therapist must have been wrong— I was not the same person I was only weeks before, she could never have been this happy.
I returned to Bar Fly every night for the next two weeks. I was still nervous around Yael, but increasingly less so. In part, because my Spanish was improving, and also because we’d fallen into a comfortable routine. I loved climbing up the stairs and hearing the same songs and seeing the same faces. I had a designated stool at the bar and could order free drinks for my friends. As soon as Yael got off work, we’d smoke weed on the roof and sway to music you couldn’t quite dance to. After, he’d walk me to the gate outside my house. “Goodnight, mija,” he’d say. I didn’t know exactly what mija meant, but I knew it started with “mi,” with mine, and it felt good to be claimed.
Prior to Yael, I had been in relationships with only two other guys. The first was Stephen. He began dating my best friend in the ninth grade, and about one month into their relationship, I decided I was in love with him. He asked me out the day after he and my friend broke up. In the strange world of junior high romance, this kind of mix-and-match coupling was oddly acceptable. Stephen and I spent endless afternoons together, making out and crafting jokes that were funny only to us. When Stephen started saying I love you, more specifically when he gave me a purple crystal that was filled with the energy of his love for me, I had to end it. I could not tolerate the sincere affection of others, or even verbalize my crushes to my closest friends. As soon as the admission left my mouth, my feelings seemed to vanish. I was too committed to self-protection.
I didn’t date again until my senior year of high school. Omar and I met in our AP Spanish class. Unlike the skateboarding stoners I awkwardly stood near during passing periods, Omar had an air of knowing and maturity that was instantly attractive. He was the only person I knew who worked full-time while in school. He was also the only person I knew who spent each night in jail.
He was arrested after he crashed his car into a vehicle parked on the side of the street. When the cops found him he was drunk, high on cocaine, and his leg was broken. He lost his license and was sentenced to several months in jail that he was serving through work release, a program that allowed him to go to school and work each day as long as he returned to jail at night.
When our daily smiles eventually progressed into overly eager “here you go’s” and “thank you’s,” I finally worked up the nerve to talk to him.
“What happened to your leg?” I asked, despite knowing the answer. He had been on crutches for weeks and the entire class knew the story.
“Car accident. I was too drunk and crashed by the mall.”
“That blows,” I said.
After class, he asked for my number, and I surprised myself by giving it to him. We dated for six months before I left for college in New York. During one of our frequent late-night phone calls, Omar admitted he had been seeing someone else the whole time we were together. I assured him that it was okay and hung up as quickly as I could. The next morning, I told my friend about his confession and giggled through the entire story. As if I cared? Looking back, I wonder if his betrayal was the thing that made our relationship work. We would have broken up a lot sooner if either one of us had asked for true intimacy or vulnerability from the other.
Yael and I walked along a narrow cobblestone street, buzzed and holding hands. We turned down an alley and stopped in front of a large, light blue colonial house. He led me to the room he rented on the third story. Piles of clothes sat on the floor and a twin bed was tucked in the corner. I was excited. I had always figured I would have sex during my first year of college, and I was disappointed that it never happened after I traded in my social life to calculate calories consumed and miles ran. I saw Yael as the perfect candidate. Like my friendship with Louisa, my relationship with him was bolstered by the knowledge that I would be gone in less than a month.
Within seconds of entering his room, Yael was naked. I took off everything but my black cotton underwear. He grabbed a condom from his shorts pocket and threw the wrapper out the window. I was thankful he had one; sadly, I don’t think I would have been bold enough to mention it if he hadn’t offered. While I positioned myself on his bed, worst case scenarios started running through my head. What if he thinks I’m fat? What if something is wrong with my vagina? What if I fart? I tried to wiggle out of my underwear, but they got caught on my toes. We laughed, and a teaspoon of tension left my body. I closed my eyes and felt him climb on top of me, resting his elbows by my ears. He began jerking back and forth inside me, and I tried not to wince. I couldn’t risk him feeling special by letting him know it was my first time. Two minutes later, he came.
As we pulled our underwear back on, I thought of a line from Sex and the City. The main character, Carrie, describes a recent sexual encounter as “jack rabbit sex. You know…pound, pound, pound, pound, pound, pound.” That seemed to sum it up. I didn’t care that the sex bad and a little painful. At least now I understood was Carrie was talking about; I was in on the joke. I liked the new version of myself who ordered lattes, drank vodka, and had sex. She was so much more fun than the girl who didn’t eat.
Yael grabbed my hand. “Stay here tonight,” he said. Almost all of me wanted to leave and avoid sleeping in front of another person, but a hungrier part of me wanted the entire movie romance experience. I lay down next to Yael and watched him fall into a satisfied sleep. Still turned on, I examined the silhouettes of our bodies side by side. His was longer than mine, firmer and in most respects thinner. I looked at my own body, and waited for the usual words to appear in my mind. Fat. Gross. Weird. They didn’t. Instead, I thought only one thing. Okay. I didn’t understand this shift then, but now I know that spending time in another country was beginning to undermine my false belief that learned beauty ideals were concrete laws.
Yael’s father was Mexican and his mother Norwegian. He had navy blue eyes and the kind of even, tan skin I had always longed for. The first time I used sunless tanning lotion I was eight years old. I had a spring dance recital coming up that required me to wear crushed velvet bell bottoms and a belly-baring T-shirt. When I learned the audience would see my white, pasty skin and round stomach I refused to perform. My mom offered me the tanning lotion as a last resort. Throughout high school, I baked in tanning beds daily in an effort to turn golden and thin, and now, at 29, have the premature age spots to prove it.
In Guanajuato, men often complimented my light skin and eyes, features that aligned with their strict Eurocentric standards. Their comments did not change how I saw myself, but rather revealed the arbitrary nature of beauty. If it could be so regional—if I could be too pale for Colorado, too fat for New York and have the right hairstyle for France, if someone could want my coloring and I could want theirs—then these evolving standards were based on specific human taste, not absolute truths.
The next day Paul took all of the students in my study abroad program on a weekend trip to Puerto Vallarta. I slept during most of the nine hour bus ride, occasionally opening my eyes when we zipped over bumps in the road or slowed down for routine traffic stops. I’d see Louisa sitting next to me and the green landscape slipping past and feel a rare sense of satisfaction. It wasn’t electric like the happiness I’d felt the night before; it didn’t live in my fingertips and chest. It was heavy and deep, and so substantial I thought I might be able to carry it with me forever. But, by the time I was walking on the beach in my bikini, it was gone.
Since then, I’ve felt the same sensation several more times, and I’ve noticed a pattern. It flows through me in the moments when I am observing, not being observed. When I forget about the vigilance required to look, act, and sound the right way. When I let myself be. It took me a long time to realize I could defy those gendered expectations whenever I wanted.
On my last night in Guanajuato, the city was caught in a downpour. I stared out my window at the colorful town that now looked muted and drab under gray clouds. Over the past week, I had been spending more and more time alone in my room. I contemplated making my way to Bar Fly to say goodbye to Yael, but quickly rejected the idea. After sleeping together a couple times, the chemistry between us had dissipated. It seemed he was drawn more to the conquest than the person, and it’s clear to me now that I was using him to feel wanted. The instant I detected his lack of interest, I rebuilt my emotional walls. “I don’t know how I thought I liked him,” I told Louisa. “He’s totally nasty.”
I began drinking more and eating less. One night, I convinced Louisa to try a new bar with me and ended up making out with three different guys in a matter of hours. It made me feel better for a minute, then left me sad again. It seemed my shame was catching up with me.
The next day, Louisa and I were back at Del Bajío International Airport. We sat next to each other in plastic seats waiting to catch our separate flights home. We were both wearing large dangling earrings that we bought at a shop near Guanajuato’s central plaza. Dangling earrings were the female equivalent to Paul’s stacked bracelets. I was already playing fantasies in my head of friends in New York complimenting my new jewelry. Oh thanks. I got them when I was living in Mexico.
A flight attendant announced Louisa’s plane to Houston would begin boarding soon in words that were no longer too fast for me to understand. “Here we go,” I said.
“I don’t want to leave yet,” Louisa said.
“At least you get to see Andy Number Two soon.”
“I guess. I think I’m going to have sex with him when I get back.”
“I bet he’ll be better at it than Yael was,” I said, protecting myself with each word.
“You said it was fun.”
“I was just trying to be nice. It was total jack rabbit sex.”
On my flight to Colorado, my anxiety intensified with every mile. Soon, I would have to go back to Barnard and a life full of high expectations and shared space. Yet, next to the pain and the panic was another feeling I barely recognized—a sense of pride.
It’s true I brought my compulsions, my obsessions, and my shame with me to Mexico, but I brought other parts of me as well, parts that were easy to miss at a competitive school in an expensive city. I realized how independent I could be, how resourceful and brave. I found that when I stopped striving and starving and studying, my life did not fall apart. In fact, it seemed the opposite might be true. In Guanajuato, I was given the space to question the rules of beauty and choice. Maybe I did not need to wait for a man with flaming sticks to invite me to worthiness. Maybe I could find it cruising on a bus towards the coast, walking on the streets of New York before dawn, or sitting alone in a quiet room.
It would take me seven more years to fully recover from my eating disorder, and I’m still carrying around more shame than I’d like, but the novelty and discomfort of travel continue to remind me that my whole self is more than that. Julie was right. Wherever you go, there you are.
Carolyn Getches is a writer and filmmaker based in Southern California. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, with a focus in screenwriting. Before going back to school, Getches worked as a producer of creative educational videos for companies such as Craftsy, Interweave and iQuilt. In addition, she has published essays through Adios Barbie, Art Files of the Flatlanders and other online platforms. Carolyn is originally from West Newbury, Massachusetts.