Stories, Trips
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Fear and Fresh Air: How Two Trips to Mexico Set Me Free

Horses run free in Mexico

My lifelong bad habit of not reading the fine print has been rivaled only by my bad habit of ignoring relationship red flags. Ignoring the fine print landed my acrophobic ass on a pissed-off horse on the edge of a cliff in Mexico. Ignoring red flags landed me in a second marriage that should not have been a second date. I survived both situations. But only now, nearly four years after that trip to Mexico and nearly three years after I left that marriage, do I realize how the former set the stage for the latter.

To be honest, the fine print wasn’t really fine. All the pertinent text was the same font size on the horseback riding adventure company’s website. I just didn’t give much thought to what “exciting and rugged” and “our horseback rides are definitely not nose-to-tail, unless you choose so,” might actually mean. And I failed to register just how high “150-foot cliffs” are. I just booked a reservation for three, my daughters and me, and looked forward to riding a horse for the first time in nearly 25 years, and spending Thanksgiving in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The horseback riding reservation did not include my then-husband and stepdaughter and that had to do with those red flags I’d ignored nearly a decade earlier. Dysfunctional, gaslighting chickens were coming home to roost. My then-husband and I had spent every Thanksgiving together since we’d started dating, sometimes with our kids, sometimes without. Sometimes we traveled, sometimes we stayed at home. In early fall, the year the chickens came home to roost, I started the “what are we doing for Thanksgiving?” conversation. My then-husband announced that we would be going to his hometown to spend Thanksgiving with his extended family. 

I wanted to show my family who I was in San Miguel: lighter, softer, freer. Happy.

This wasn’t the first unilateral decision he’d made in our marriage, but it was the first that affected my children and me so negatively and directly. We didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Hell, he had told me a few months prior that he never planned to go back there himself. I refused to spend money and incur my daughters’ endless annoyance going to a place even he didn’t want to go to. So, rather than resign myself to one of his edicts as I usually did, I said, “Okay. My girls and I will be spending Thanksgiving in San Miguel.” 

~

I first fell in love with San Miguel earlier that year, charmed by the city when I’d gone there on a DIY retreat with some writer friends. I left our rental house each morning to buy avocados for breakfast from the vendor on the corner; he practiced his decent English, I practiced my pitiful Spanish. After breakfast, I would sit in the sun on the roof and work on my novel. In late afternoon, I walked the cobblestone streets in my pink camouflage hiking sandals, with no particular destination in mind. Inevitably, I would find art, chatty artists, and Frida Kahlo memorabilia everywhere. In El Jardín, the main plaza, mojigangas (giant puppets) roamed, and mariachi bands, some with members as young as five, serenaded diners. When night fell, my friends and I ate pozole and sipped spicy margaritas at rooftop restaurants, went to house parties hosted by American ex-pats, and watched brilliant fireworks over the pink towers of Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a 17th-century church and the city’s most famous landmark. Late-night, we went out in search of the best street tacos.

I couldn’t wait to share all of this with my family. At the time, I thought I just wanted to show them all the city had to offer. But now I think I also wanted to show them who I was in San Miguel: lighter, softer, freer. Happy. Unburdened by sorrow — some that belonged to me and some that didn’t — I could breathe there.

~

We don’t talk enough about how marriages can be dark, dark places. Not until afterwards, and even then, we can’t resist revising some light into them. We don’t want people to think that it was all bad. We don’t want to answer a million questions or explain why we stayed or why we didn’t talk about what was going on. Not while we’re still trying to figure all that out ourselves. It’s like asking someone to solve an algebra problem as soon as the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. It’s too early. It takes a lot of living and healing and time before you’re ready to start solving for x, for the whys.

I was so broken, and he was so broken, and we were so broken.

But I wasn’t thinking about him or us during that late November afternoon horseback ride up the canyon wall in San Miguel. The day was cool enough for a fleece pullover, but sunny. I wore sunglasses and a brimmed hat, and hoped I didn’t look too much like a tourist who hadn’t ridden a horse since college. 

My daughters, far more experienced riders, and generally less awkward than me, looked at home in their saddles. When our guide, Rodrigo, invited everyone in our group to trot or gallop along stretches of the path, my girls took off. I tried to trot, but my horse wanted to gallop because he saw the other horses galloping. Rodrigo told us how to let the horse know which gait we wanted. Everyone else’s horse obeyed as they switched between gaits as the terrain changed from rocky to smooth, through streams and back on dry land. I quickly fell into last place in the caravan. My horse was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? All my friends are at least trotting!” I had the surly teenager of horses. Rodrigo yelled over his shoulder to me, “He’s a moody one!” Great. When we stopped briefly to give the horses a rest, my horse picked a fight with another horse nearby, for no reason anyone could determine. When we got back on the path, my personal cowboy rode beside me in silence, con simpatía. 

As we neared the cliff, the view was stunning. Not just gorgeous, but surprising. So. Very. High. Up. So this was 150 feet? This is what I get for paying so little attention to the not-fine fine print.  Looking out into the canyon, I gasped, imagining myself fainting at the Grand Canyon and falling from one of its 2,600-foot cliffs into the mouth. 

Our caravan stopped, horses head to tail. I craned my neck to see what was going on. And then I really almost fainted. The cowboys were leading each horse-and-rider pair to the cliff’s edge for a photo op. 

I froze, watching as the nice, obedient horses stopped on command — at the edge of the cliff — when the attendant cowboy dropped the reins and walked out of the frame. My stomach lurched as my daughters took their turns. 

My mouth went dry, and I struggled to speak, to tell my cowboy that I was afraid, that I didn’t want to do the damned photo op. But I didn’t know how to say any of that in Spanish. I couldn’t even remember how to say, “Help.” I could’ve yelled for Rodrigo, but I didn’t want to startle anyone’s horse.

“Por favor,” I pleaded. My cowboy looked at me and nodded. “Por favor, stay with me. Don’t leave me. Por favor, hold the reins. I’d like you to be in the photo with me.” He nodded again. And when my turn came, he led the horse and me to the cliff, dropped the reins and walked away.

I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew, my cowboy was leading my horse away from the edge.

After surviving the ride up the canyon wall, we rode back down at break-neck speed with the horses’ hooves kicking up so much dust, I could barely see. Literally, the wall was so steep and we were going so fast that, if I had fallen off the horse as I feared I would, I might’ve broken my neck. But I made it down in one piece, back to the calm streams between the canyon walls. My daughters, riding unfazed atop more docile horses, pulled out their iPhones again. They held the pommel with one hand and recorded with the other, blissfully unaware of my slowly subsiding terror.

~

In San Miguel, and later Taos, I was reminded of who I had been, who I wanted to be again, and who I could become: terrified but brave, glowing and curious, adventurous and whole. Actor Jenifer Lewis wrote in her memoir, “You sit in shit too long, it stops smelling. So come the fuck outta there.” I had sat in that marriage so long, I couldn’t smell the stench of it until I was far away long enough to be reminded how fresh air was supposed to be.

My two trips to San Miguel weren’t the ultimate catalyst that led me to leave that marriage — that was the fresh air of a writing fellowship retreat in Taos the following summer. But the San Miguel trips, especially the second one that took me up a canyon wall atop a temperamental horse to the edge of a cliff, where I breathed in my fear and my truth and my resilience, are what laid the groundwork for leaving.

Nowadays, I still sometimes neglect to read the fine print on things. But I can spot a red flag in a one-sentence bio and profile picture on OK Cupid. I plan to visit San Miguel again in a year or so, and when I do, the city won’t be a respite from a dark, airless place. This time, I will bring my own light and rare air.

Filed under: Stories, Trips

by

Deesha Philyaw

Deesha Philyaw's collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, The Secret Lives of Church Lives (West Virginia University Press) is a National Book Award finalist. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Cheat River Review, ESPN’s The Undefeated, The Baltimore Review, TueNight, Ebony and Bitch magazines, and various anthologies. Deesha is a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. She is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband.

2 Comments

  1. This is so beautifully written. Thank you for taking the time to be open about this. You’re right–so many women choose not to share the darker sides of marriage. Your article helped me realize some things about my own patterns. I appreciate you sis.

    • Deesha Philyaw
      Deesha Philyaw says

      Thank you so much, Africa! And I’m glad the essay was helpful. I wish you much peace and clarity, sis. xo

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