Each time my husband returns to Pittsburgh from Mexico, I tell him he has that exquisite pueblo smell. It lingers on him for days. I cringe pointing this out: It seems a detail that belongs in the short story of a 19-year-old who has just spent a semester abroad — he smelled of wood smoke, leather and pine as he spun me around — but it is true. He grabs me and pulls me to him, takes a sensuous whiff of my hair: “Mmmmm,” he says. “You smell like Target.”
“Jerk,” I say. Ten years into our relationship, seven into our marriage, it still surprises me to smell my husband, Jorge, exactly as I did the first time we kissed. That was in the cloud forest of Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur, on a dirt road several miles from a tiny village known for its magic mushrooms. We were under the sway of said mushrooms, me talking about yellow and blue worlds, him crying for obscure reasons, then both of us surprisingly serene, eating pears. We leaned in and kissed and his smell surprised me: sweet piney smoke, sun on skin. To smell this in our rented house in Pittsburgh is jolting, but familiar.
It’s the same jolt when Jorge FaceTimes us from a dried-up dam in the isthmus of Oaxaca, cracked earth out of the end times stretching as far as we can see. “Papi, I got gummy bears!” our 2-year-old daughter, Elena, says, and we wave from her Ikea bed with pillows shaped like smiling rainclouds. I read her Sandra Boynton, I feed her spaghetti, I give her a bubble bath, I put her to bed. Back in Mexico, Jorge is pummeled in the head by a pineapple thrown by a reveler from atop a horse, he drinks mezcal and listens to stories of cantina brawls, he photographs drag queens at an all-night party in 100-degree weather.
A year ago, two years ago, I would have felt bitter and angry and jealous when I said goodbye to him. I would have wanted to be there, or wanted him to be here, for us to have the same experience and perspective. Now, I am mostly comfortable on what I recognize as my side of the gap. It took me a long time to admit there is and always will be a gap, between his Mexico and my United States, between the selves that have formed in each. It diminishes and widens depending not on whether we’re in the same country but rather on a particular moment in our lives, what we need, where we seek meaning. Over the years, and especially in parenthood, he becomes more his Mexican self and I more my American one.
I imagine myself as a conglomeration of identities, a — pardon me — melting pot. Not that I imagine I am made up of multiple ethnicities (though I am, from all over Europe) but rather that I imagine I don’t really have an “American” cultural identity so much as a hodgepodge of selves: the traveler, the writer, the mother, the Ohioan. I’m willing to lampoon and interrogate them all, but Jorge is not willing to do this with his pueblo self. He needs at times to sit with an abuelito on a stone patio, sipping cafe de olla, listening to la banda play “Dios Nunca Muere.” He needs that or his soul withers, and he will say this in melodramatic agony with no irony. It has taken me a long time to accept that he can have this, alone, without it taking away from my importance and my place in his life.
It has taken me a long time to accept that in a way he has a lover and that lover is a country, which he will always return to and always need and always love even if he goes long intervals without, or in doubt. It is hard not to feel immensely vulnerable about this. But this stage of marriage, after all the romance of the early years and the insane blur of new parenthood, seems to be about deepening our intimacy by accepting our differences.
We are each 35. In some ways, as our life settles more solidly into its givens, we are less and less certain of who we are. I search for meaning in writing, spending my days at a desk covered in Post-its and wedged into the corner of our bedroom. Jorge photographs weddings, whereas in Mexico he did documentary and fine art photography. He is beloved as a star of Oaxaca’s art scene. He would much rather be doing this stateside, but he’s devoted now to his business and — because of how he grew up, so different from how I did in the suburbs without ever questioning a financial safety net — he won’t take the risk of abandoning that work for something far riskier.
Mexico has become for him a refuge of meaning, and this scares me a little, pitting me as the status quo against his lover as the exotic and exciting, but this far into adulthood I can accept that successful family life is less like the perfectly balanced scale — 10 oranges on this side and 10 on the other — and more like a kaleidoscope, the pieces constantly changing in structure, constantly recomposing themselves.
Margaret Mead, who married three times, once said that every person has three marriages, no matter how many people they marry. We are now in our second marriage. As our daughter becomes a preschooler and begins to ask questions like, “Are you a ‘Merican? Is Papi a ‘Merican?” we are coming into different selves. Parent selves — “Oh my gosh,” I gushed at my husband the other day as he came down the stairs in his ball cap and jeans and Pumas, “you look like a dad” — and career selves, but also the selves that were there long before we ever met each other.
He wants to buy his family’s home in his mountain village. I take us out every weekend to my parents’ farm in Ohio, where we walk the creek looking for salamanders. There are contentious times when one or both of us long for our 26-year-old selves, who embraced cultural difference enthusiastically and naïvely as both incredibly interesting and also not really important at all. We could be whoever and whatever we wanted with no trade-offs and low stakes. Now, we have a child. We have a more settled life. We have careers.
What stays and emerges from these circumstances is what matters: my writing, his Mexico. In a field of constant compromises often the biggest gift we can give each other is a self that has nothing to do with family, with home, with our life at all, that is all about another self of the past and the imagination. It is the self I build in essays about motherhood, obsessed with questions of home and goodness and seeing, and it is the self he finds while crouched with his camera beneath an exploding tower of fireworks in a village fiesta.
In the act of creating a daughter, perhaps, we split up the oneness of our early marriage and we became, again, two. One Mexican, one American. One who feels no guilt watching endless hours of “Narcos” and one who reads dense novels in the bathtub with a beer. One who can spend a full summer day scanning negatives in a dark office and one who runs 17 miles for the fun of it. Jorge, Sarah. Tu, I. Us, and Mexico too.