3. Déjà vu

When Sam cleared customs at the Mexico City airport, lugging the promised suitcase along with his own bulging duffle, I had already fallen into the easy groove of Spanish classes, cooking, and lively cultural exchanges at Instituto Cutural Oaxaca and settled comfortably at the Maldonaldo’s home with Parsley, my twelve-year-old German Shepherd.

The drive between Mexico City and Oaxaca took about twelve hours in the old VW bus, and we planned to drive all night; I didn’t want to miss any lessons. Sam, Parsley, and I had traveled by car plenty over our eight years together: through the Pacific Northwest, several trips down the Baja Peninsula—once pulling a 23’ sailboat on a trailer, up the Australian eastern seaboard, Brisbane to Cairns, and a month in Mexico and Belize. We had it down, the rhythm of the road. Drive and ride, drive and sleep, pit-stop, walk the dog, eat, change drivers.

“I’ll drive first—you sleep,” I offered. “I can get us out of the city and onto 190 through Cuautla by dark. Then you drive.” It was six p.m. I had left Oaxaca at five that morning and was exhausted.

West of Cuautla the sun disappeared behind the distant dead volcanoes, their dark peaks worn to two-dimensional flatness against the yellowy haze of sky, fading to ash with the twilight. Earlier in the day, I’d crossed this prehistoric valley, with its moonscape of cones jutting here and there from the vast expanse of empty grassland and experienced the strangest sense of déjà vu.

I knew this place. I had planted corn kernels in the rocky, fertile soil. See my brown stick-like legs jutting from the thread-bare hem of my rough jute-colored tunic, my dusty feet bound to leather soles by strips of tanned hide. See my pointed stick plunge into the ground. See my calloused, rough-working hand dip into the cloth bag, drop the seed into the hole. Look about, see the others, dark-skinned against their light tunics, ragged black hair flowing forward across bent shoulders—dig, reach, drop, dig, reach, drop—against the backdrop of smoking cones.

This is why I’d come to Mexico, I thought—to decode my night-time dreams. I wanted to dig my ancient roots, uncover a recondite heritage within my blood. And I was going to write about it. I’d been in Mexico for over two months and so far, this valley held the strongest pull, the sharpest vision. I thrilled to my discovery.

“Ann, I can’t live without you.” Sam’s voice rushed between our Caddy seats, urgent, jarring.

I flinched, startled back from my past-life musings. “What?”

“I need you, please give me the excuse to finalize the divorce,” he mumbled, his hang-dog body language barking “loser.”

“Get over it, Sam. Don’t bring me into it—if you don’t love your wife and don’t want to be married to her—get a divorce.”

I’d dumped Sam two years before when he ran off to Belize to chase drug smugglers on a DEA contract, and I didn’t want him following me around Mexico, spoiling my big adventure. But I was the one who called for help after the heist of my suitcases and there we were, driving together toward Oaxaca and the Instituto.

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