Minor Trouble in Mexico
September 1, 2001
When I was his age, he was six
by Julie Doherty
hen my ill-fated San Francisco software company failed to create a usable product, I quit my job and took off to pursue adventure and perfect my Spanish in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a remote mountain town in the southern-most Mexican state of Chiapas. Subject to plenty of cultural tourism but far from the beach, San Cristóbal's small population is a mix of conservative adults, college students, and a smattering of expatriates. I have spent several months here trying to make friends, fit in, and learn to shop for groceries at the market. Language aside, I struggle for fluency in foreign social norms. However, there are many benefits to navigating international challenges. Among the most notable: exposure to a whole new crop of boys.
My first night in San Cristóbal I happened upon a touristy bar called Cocodrilo that has since become my favorite guilty pleasure. I was attracted to Cocodrilo's central location, wide range of tequila-based cocktails, and ever-entertaining clientele - primarily composed of German tourists sporting video cameras. Despite these attractions, my true motivation for frequenting the Cocodrilo was a member of their house band, which pumps out Mexican vacation hits every night. The drummer, dressed to my tastes (skater punk) and with a face so beautiful it should be carved on a stone wall, had my heart from the first time I saw him twirl a drumstick. After several weeks of making eyes at him over beers and rebuffing offers to dance with other men, I finally managed to interact with the object of my infatuation. I approached him after a show and we introduced ourselves. His name was Santiago. After stumbling through an awkward conversation punctuated with coy smiles, we decided to go dancing. We left the bar, and he took my hand as we walked out into the street.
San Cristóbal's two clubs are always packed with students and tourists, grooving to the beats of bad dance music and reggae. Though the club was festive, Santiago and I did not join the minions on the dance floor: we sat in a corner, holding hands, drinking beer, and talking. Unlike the mediocre treatment I am resigned to expect from men, Santiago was the perfect companion. Sweet, patient with my Spanish, and completely devoted to me - I was adored and adoring. Silences were smoothed with kisses and smiles.
When I asked Santiago his age, I was already smitten, tipsy, and yelling over pumping Bob Marley. In response, I thought he said 'quince' - fifteen. I gawked and he back-peddled, laughing and assuring me that I had heard him wrong. He was twenty-two. Though his confidence and mature looks suggested an age similar to my own, I wasn't sure I had an adult on my hands. 'Susana,' I asked a friend who is, like I, twenty-four. 'How old do you think this kid is?' Santiago was smiling and shaking his head as she scanned him and guessed, 'Twenty-one.' With this unprompted affirmation, I only hesitated for a minute before shrugging off the encounter, crediting the miscommunication to my flawed Spanish and the distracting environment. Twenty minutes later, I took him home with me.
With butterflies in my stomach and a head full of romance, I went back to Cocodrilo to see Santiago a few days later. His behavior surprised me. He was slow to find me in the audience, we chatted briefly, and then he said he was sick and could not go out. His explanation felt like an excuse to avoid me. I felt hurt and baffled - I was crazy about him and thought my feelings were reciprocated. I went home and bawled into my pillow like a hysterical teenager. And as I have no pride, I returned to the bar a week later. Nervous, I kept a low profile, but Santiago approached me right after the band wrapped up their set. This time, he was happy to see me. We smiled. We flirted. He touched my arm. I was in heaven.
Feeling carefree, I asked if he wanted to go dancing. The conversation froze. Shifty-eyed, he said that he couldn't go to a club; he wasn't old enough. In a wave of panic, I managed to utter, 'Aren't old enough?'
'No,' he said. 'I am Eighteen.'
'Eighteen,' I repeated, confused by the story, as I was certain that the drinking age in Mexico is a very loose eighteen. I chose to focus on the deception, rather than the inconsistency. 'You told me you were twenty-two.'
Regaining confidence, he stared at me as if that conversation never took place, shrugged, and said, 'Eighteen.' Paralyzed by shock, I went through the motions of making plans to see him the next night, gave him my phone number, and trudged home.
Lying in bed that night, I did the math. Eighteen. I was six years older than he was. When I was his age, he was twelve. When I was twelve, he was six. I mulled it over. I have always enjoyed challenging social norms and am comfortable in relationships with considerably younger men. At home, I have been the butt of many cradle-robbing jokes and the beneficiary of many good boyfriends since I started dating the younger set. Regardless, the idea of having a relationship with an eighteen-year-old boy - um, man - was an adjustment, even for my open mind. Between that evening and the next, I managed to convince myself that dating someone eighteen is unusual - and certainly humorous - but still acceptable. My justifications included the following: He is technically an adult; he seems older; cultural differences will make our relationship mutually beneficial and edifying, despite age disparity; he is cooler than I am, for God's sake; and, didn't this happen to Monica on Friends?
The next night, I met Santiago at a bar that has no protocol for carding underage drinkers. He arrived with two prepubescent wingmen who swaggered onto barstools, ordered beer, and announced that they were fifteen. They further informed me that they were all friends from high school. High school? Panicked and suspicious, I turned to Santiago, who took my hand and reassured me that he was eighteen. He flashed me a sun-god smile, and I trusted him.
Within minutes I forgot about the age difference as I found that Santiago's friends were, like him, funny and sharp. I left my reservations behind as we drank beer and talked sports. The next thing I knew, I was crammed into the backseat of a decrepit VW Bug, careening through the streets of San Cristóbal with a pack of charged-up adolescents. Cruising through town with the windows down, I felt like I was a teenager again - though in a cooler, more cinematic version of my prior experience. This time around, I was making trouble with a pack of popular, foxy juvenile delinquents.
We all went back to my house and I didn't hesitate when Santiago started kissing me. Whatever he was, I was sixteen and smitten. Only when he had to go home to his parents' house early in the evening did I stop kidding around and start putting it all together: He couldn't spend the night at my house; his friends were in high school; he said he was too young to go to clubs; and though my Spanish was imperfect, I was familiar enough with the word 'quince.' Panicking, I realized that he had told me the truth about his age the very first time I asked him, but I hadn't believed him. I believed what I wanted to believe. I had tried to shrug off suspicions and inconsistencies with the excuse of language barriers and cultural differences. But all along, I had been avoiding the truth: Santiago was fifteen. Fifteen. Again, I did the math. He was nine years younger. When I was his age, he was six. When I was six, he did not exist. He was born in 1985.
I remember 1985.
At first, I felt disappointed. When I had thought that Santiago was eighteen, I could justify my feelings for him, however misled. I could pursue a relationship with him as an experiment in bucking the traditional model, or at least see it as a funny life experience. Now I had to convince myself that there was some way I could responsibly conduct a relationship with a high school student. As hard as I tried to squeeze out a rationalization for continuing with the relationship, I could not find one. I pined, convinced that if he were just a few years older, I would spend the rest of my life with him.
Disappointment was followed by anger. I felt violated and ashamed, duped into an ethically questionable situation. I had trusted him and he had lied to me. I have heard many times that the defendant in a statutory rape case will claim that he couldn't have known the woman he met in a bar was actually a child. Until it happened to me, I had never understood how these mistakes could be made. Santiago looked and acted like my peer, and I wanted to believe what he told me. There had been signs, but for a blend of justifiable and unjustifiable reasons, I didn't see them right away.
Though the fact of his age did not at first shatter my feelings for Santiago, eventually it did. I still go to Cocodrilo on a regular basis; however, when spending time with people my own age, I can resist his smiles and hairless chest. Though I'd convinced myself that I could fall in love with someone eight years my junior, a few weeks later, the idea seemed absurd. My peers can legally drink beer, go to clubs, and spend the night at my house without calling home. They have the liberty and experience to back up their feelings with the truth and consistent behavior. I realize that rather than having been madly in love, I'd been madly in lust. Blinded by his physical perfection, I had created emotions to justify my desires. Had I pursued a relationship with Santiago, I would have lost interest in him and left him for someone my own age. No matter what I told myself before, I want a boyfriend who can do what I do and who has had the experience I have.
After my anger and disappointment subsided, Santiago and I developed a friendly, big sister-little brother relationship. We talk after shows. We go home alone.
And I vow to close the gap between what I want and what I believe.
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