“In Mexico City, there is a god under every stone, and when the stones speak, they are the memory of our people.” –Elena Poniatowska, in her foreword for Mexico City: A Cultural and Literary Companion
Sixteen hours before boarding a flight to Mexico City, I’m on the phone with an agent interested in representing my novel. I’d received my first offer of representation the week before, and now I’m wrapping up discussions with the handful of other agents still considering my work. In that moment on the phone I am focused, centered, serious. My novel is my world.
When I hang up, I finish packing. I tuck my passport into my bag. I clean my writing desk. The large, hardcover notebook I’d been using since 2012 for novel brainstorming notes is nearly full. The final pages contain agent feedback, the words motivation, framework, narrative scrawled out in my rapid handwriting. I turn a page and see: cruelty, negative space, albatross, stripped.
And this final phrase: To land on something that feels true.
I’m sipping Mexican beer at a café overlooking ruins when I pull out a tiny paperback journal. That slender notebook with its dreamy pattern of flowers and reeds is meant to be my place to record this ten-day vacation with my husband. But on the first page of this journal, I don’t write any travel notes. Instead, I jot down a list of questions for one of the agents.
Maybe, I think, I can retreat to a quiet corner in the café and call the agent now. Get these questions answered so I can make a decision.
The sun is bright. The centuries-old wreckage of a temple spreads beneath me while the prick of a cactus waits inches from my arm. And yet my novel is still hovering nearby. If I reach far enough, maybe I can touch it.
I don’t speak Spanish. I took a few half-hearted passes at teaching myself some basics in the weeks before this trip, but my efforts were wholly inadequate. And so for a time after arriving in Mexico City, I alternate between feeling ashamed and irritated with myself. How mystifying that I would willfully fail language in this way. How infuriating that I would sabotage my own ability to communicate.
Time ticks on. The longer I am awash in an unfamiliar language and city, the farther away my novel feels. I return to the hotel after dinner to find an email from another agent, someone I didn’t expect to hear from. She’s just finished reading my novel and wants to know whether I’ve committed to anyone yet.
I blink at her message. Years ago, I tried and failed to find an agent with manuscripts that weren’t quite ready, though I couldn’t see that at the time. Back then I fantasized about this exact situation in which more than one agent offers to represent me. I tried to imagine what it would feel like for my work to be wanted in this way.
Things are different now. I’ve written so many words. I’ve watched my own writing shift and stretch and change, transforming in that hard-earned way born of experience and effort, fragility and failure. Securing representation no longer feels like a gift so much as one more step—a step I prepared to take by building the stairs myself.
Every moment on the metro and then light rail on the way to Xochimilco, I’m traveling farther south than I’d ever been before. I’m trying not to think about the agents, about who I’ll have to turn down. My mind is made up even as I tell myself it’s not.
Later that day my husband and I board a gondola, the sole passengers on a boat that could easily seat twenty. I’m on a mission. We are not there merely to pull bottles of beer from the icy bucket at our feet and watch the landscape drift past—instead,we’re on our way to visit Isla de las Muñecas, or the Island of the Dolls.
We float through the canals for two hours. When we finally arrive at the island, I wander among the wasteland of dolls as if in a pleasure-spiked nightmare. I’m not so concerned with the island’s origin myth—a mysterious drowned girl, a man obsessed—and instead want to study each doll up close, to memorize and photograph and record.
I cross rough wooden footbridges and squint at dolls dangling high in trees. I walk in circles, retracing my steps, discovering and rediscovering dolls with missing limbs, cobwebbed eyes, layers of dirt encrusted in every crease. I cannot pull myself away from them. My love for that island of decrepit, filthy, dismembered dolls is nothing I can easily explain. That’s how I know I’ll return to this place later in my writing. It’s my only way of discovering what some deeper part of me might know.
When we return to the boat, I estimate maybe fifteen minutes have passed. My husband corrects me, says we were on the island for at least forty-five. I feel disoriented, like time has been stolen from me.
On that island I do not think of my novel, not once. But once I am back on the canal, I feel it in the air. Waiting for my return.
My Spanish is still mostly useless. I can order myself coffee, or a meal in a restaurant, and I know how to get street mango the way I like it (only lime, no salt or chili), and sometimes I even understand the price when it’s spoken in rapid Spanish. Twenty pesos, twenty-five, thirty. Everything is so inexpensive, so easily within my grasp.
The small department store next to our hotel carries exactly three books in English, all contemporary YA novels, all blockbusters: The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, both by John Green, and If I Stay by Gayle Forman.
For a moment I hold all three of these novels at once. I think of the long processes entailed in their writing, editing, design, and promotion, and then how they traveled to Mexico City, and then how they came to rest in my hands.
When I try to read the text on the back covers, the English words swim before my eyes like a foreign language.
I make my agent decision official via email in the hotel room just before dinner. Later, my writing friends ask how it went, who I chose and why, and what happens next. Their words settle like water in my ears after a swim. Some part of me is back on the island, or moving toward the coming days of the trip and all that I have yet to see—a famous blue house, an imposing pyramid, the convent of Juana Inés.
Making this decision in Mexico City is odd, I write back. I feel so far away.
Days pass. Scenes and experiences flicker before me: a girl in a voluminous quinceañera dress paying five pesos to use a public restroom in a park. Hot air balloons rising through the morning mist in Teotihuacan. Sitting at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Shielding my eyes against the brilliant blue of Frida Kahlo’s house. Counting skulls and skeletons. Choking down pulque. Laughing with a group of joyous strangers late at night downtown.
One of those strangers asks to take a group selfie. She holds her phone high and, for a split second, I see my face on the screen. My skin is luminous, all lit up by flash. I am smiling. I am alive.
I sign and submit the literary agency contract in a Starbucks down the street from my hotel because its wifi is more reliable. My former writing self could never predict that I’d finally sign with an agent in this way, in a city where I don’t know the language.
Afterward, I don’t even celebrate. Instead I visit a seventeenth-century former convent, breeze through a library’s courtyards, and narrowly avoid getting caught in the rain. I think about how Elena Poniatowska claimed there’s a god under every stone in Mexico City. I for one can’t stop tracking the dead in this place. The skulls, the graves, the ruins, the decimated dolls—I’m drawn to it all.
In Mexico City, I can’t speak the language. That is my mistake and my regret, and yet this failure unrolls like an opportunity. It allows me to walk through the city for hours each day while enveloped in a certain kind of privacy. I am isolated, a shell waiting to crack.
In this way, I hold my novel close. No matter how far home feels, my words are waiting somewhere in the damp darkness. I can feel the weight of them there, as solid and certain as stone.