I WAS SITTING on Manette's faded chintz
sofa when the jaguarundi rubbed its flank against my calf. I
paid it no notice, thinking it was a house cat. Later, when I
was leaving, I saw it curled up atop one of Uwe's music boxes.
Its head was as long and flat as a weasel's, and its coat was
a dusty black, like an otter's. "That's my jaguarundi,"
Manette said as she passed me my umbrella. It flicked open its
eyes at the sound of her voice. They were larger than a cat's,
coffee-colored with round pupils.
"Uwe bought her for me from a rancher in Chiapas,"
Manette was saying. "I'm painting her into my 'jungle pastiche'.
Uwe's written a poem about her, 'Gibt es einen Zoo in der Nähe?'"
"You know I can't understand a word of German," I said
and I kissed her on the mouth.
This was in Coyoacán, an old neighborhood of Mexico City.
This was 1982, when we all had dollars in the Mexican banks and
we all felt rich, or rich enough anyway. Uwe was importing music
boxes from Austria and Denmark, brought in on some politician's
private plane to avoid paying duty. Manette had begun to sell
her jungle paintings through a gallery in the Zona Rosa. I had
most of my money parked with my father's stockbroker in New York;
in Mexico I lived simply, in work shirts and bluejeans, no furniture,
a portable typewriter. If I needed a tie, I didn't go.
I began to go to Manette's house nearly every afternoon. We drank
shot glasses of prickly pear brandy, or tequila with a spritz
of lime; once, we drank a finger of Uwe's peppermint schnapps
and smoked a joint. Manette's jaguarundi lolled on the apricot
kilim at our feet, it's purr deep and rough. The rains started
by about four, and they made the jaguarundi restless. It would
leap from music box to music box, to the ledge over the sofa
where it set Uwe's Zapotecan bowls wobbling and spinning. Sometimes
I caught a glimpse of its tail, much longer, more slender than
a cat's, among the forest of antique silver frames on the baby
grand piano. When it came near the sofa again, Manette would
rake her hand along its back, then lightly, with one finger,
along its tail.
"Precious," she always said.
The garden was chill and lush. Manette had hung windchimes made
of abalone shells from the eaves, and it is this that I remember,
more than her voice, although that too was soft, and flute-like.
And I remember the faint smell of ferns and of wet geraniums,
the cool lightness of her eiderdown duvet thrown over my back;
teak, waxed rosewood, and the jaguarundi that smelled like Manette,
tart and sugary, like bramble, or hazelnuts.
Uwe was German. There were a lot of Germans in Mexico, people
whose great grandfathers had confused Galveston with Veracruz,
most of them engineers, or chicken farmers, or accountants. Uwe
wrote poetry and sold music boxes. I met him a few weeks after
I'd begun to see Manette, at one of his and Manette's Thursday
night 'open houses'.
"So you are a writer," he said. He wasn't really looking
at me; he was watching Manette. She had the jaguarundi in her
arms and was going around the room, allowing people to pet it.
Somehow, Uwe got it out of me that I had lived in Nairobi, and
Fez, and a village of exactly seven souls and a flock of bandylegged
sheep on the northwest coast of Skye, and that I had published
two chapbooks of poetry, and recently, a collection of travel
essays I'd written for a Canadian magazine.
"You are busy, busy, busy," Uwe said. He had jet black
hair, dyed I suspected, and a broken nose. "For you,"
he said, taking a swallow of his cognac, "'The Flight of
the Bumble Bee'." He led me to a dark corner in the foyer.
Next to the hat stand was a stone pedestal, and on it, an oval-shaped
box made of mahogany and polished burlwood; there was a bee the
size of my hand on each of its sides, inlaid with obisidian and
yellow jade. Uwe wound it up with an iron key.
"I travel light," I laughed. "I don't have a car,
I don't even own a tie."
"Does not matter," he said. He knew who my father was.
"If you can have a beautiful thing, why not have it?"
The music sounded like the abalone shell chimes in a storm.
"Rimsky-Korsakoff," he said, stroking his chin and
smiling tightly, as if in ecstacy. "I will give you a good
"No thanks," I said. "But thanks."
"Uwe's a lousy poet," Manette told me once. We had
stepped out of the shower, and towelled each other off. She was
pulling a tortoise-shell comb through her waist-length blonde
hair. "Do you know, he's never published anything?"
she said fiercely. "Uwe only knows how to collect things.
Things and people."
I had seen the music boxes, the ones Uwe kept for himself; the
antique beer steins lined up on a shelf near the diningroom ceiling,
the Zapotecan bowls, the filigreed silver frames, black and white
photographs, a basketful of fingernail-sized gold coins stamped
with the profile of the Archduke Maximilian.
"God," she said, her eyes glistening. "Even here,
in the bathroom." She tapped her comb against the glass
on a print. "Uxmál," she said with disgust.
She pointed to the print next to the sink. "That one's Chichén."
They covered the walls, Sayíl, Labná, Dzibilichaltun,
Mayan ruins under a hand-colored dawn.
She'd slicked her hair into a rope and was leaning forward, twisting
the towel around her head. When she stood up, it was if she had
on a fantastic headdress. Water drops sparkled in the wells of
"Tortoise-shell combs!" she said, grabbing a fistful
from a Talavera bowl. "Tin soldiers, politicians, Agustín
Lara recordings, poets -"
I ran my hands down her shoulderblades and buried my face in
I thought I would see another jaguarundi. But I never have, not
once in my life.
Manette never finished what she called her 'jungle pastiche'
painting. Near the end of the rainy season the president gave
a speech everyone who had a television watched. I didn't have
a television, but Manette called me that night to tell me that
the president had begun to shout, towards the end, about plunder,
conspiracies; tears welled in his eyes, he shook his fist at
the cameras. He said he would nationalize the banks, and no one
was allowed to change pesos for dollars, or dollars for pesos.
Uwe hurled one of his beer steins at the screen. The beer stein
had been worth a lot of money, Manette said, enough to buy a
Uwe had decided they would go to Vienna, for several months.
"Uwe's taking me to the operas," she mumbled, and began
"Don't forget your opera glasses," I said.
"Look in on my jaguarundi," she said.
I hung up on her.
I couldn't work for days. I sat on the mattress in my bare apartment,
balancing the typewriter on my knees. I drank weak té
de tila, I smoked stale Marlboros and chewed my nails. I tried
to finish a travel piece about the Pacific Coast, but instead
I wrote a series of poems I titled "Manette in the Morning",
because, I realized, I had never seen her in the morning. Later,
when I left Mexico, I would tear them to shreds and flush them
down the toilet.
I toured every single church and museum in the city limits, I
walked through the Alameda, and Chapultepec Park, looking each
woman I saw full in the face. I went to the Chapultepec zoo and
threw a hotdog to the tiger. I took the metro to Coyoacán,
thinking I might look in on the jaguarundi, but my feet wouldn't
take me to Manette's cobblestone lane. I kept walking down Francisco
Sosa, past Los Geránios, through the plaza to El Parnaso
where I bought a chapbook by a Mexican poet I'd met on one of
those Thursday nights, a short mousy-haired woman I didn't really
respect. I stared at her words as I drank a coffee I didn't really
want. I left the book face down next to the tip.
Then, I did look in on the jaguarundi. The maid let me in, saying
she'd been expecting me. She asked me if I wanted a brandy, or
a shotglass of tequila? I asked where the jaguarundi was, and
she clapped her hands and called its name. But it didn't come.
"It is sad," she said, "now that Señora
Manette is gone." Her red and white checked apron was soiled.
"It broke one of Señor Uwe's Zapotecan bowls. I had
to punish it." She stared at the floor and twisted her braid.
We began to search for the jaguarundi, behind the chintz sofa,
around the music boxes, behind the plumería in clay pots
painted with the faces of the sun and moon. And in the laundry
patio, the garden, the diningroom. I went upstairs, to Manette's
and Uwe's bedroom. The drapes were closed and Manette's jewelry
box was gone, but everything else was the same. There were dusky
black hairs shed all over the eiderdown duvet, and a small oval
indentation where the jaguarundi had slept on her pillow. I could
hear the maid downstairs, still clapping her hands and calling
for it. I opened the drapes, and pushed out the window. The abalone
shells tinkled in the breeze.
Manette's closet door was ajar. I walked in, and I thought I
might sink to my knees, drown in the smell of laundered cotton,
grassy linen, the oranges she'd stuck with cloves. I grabbed
an armful of her blouses and held them to my cheek. The jaguarundi
began to purr and to weave between my legs.
It let me pick it up and carry it downstairs to the sofa. I sat
with it on my lap for awhile, nuzzling it, burying my face in
its scruff. Everything was the same, as if Manette and Uwe might
be coming home for cocktails, any minute. I poured myself a schnapps
and wound up the nearest music box, a large dust-covered chest.
It played too slowly, missing the A and the F sharp, "Dance
des Mirlitons", from The Nut Cracker Suite. I sat on the
sofa for a long time, smoothing the jaguarundi's fur with the
flat of my hand, listening for the faint rush of the city's arteries,
to the jaguarundi's shallow breath and my own. When I got up
to leave, the jaguarundi cocked its head, staring at me.
Outside, the sun was a harsh white, everything was dry.
The maid had been giving the jaguarundi cat food and it looked
a little thin. So I returned the next afternoon with a fish wrapped
in butcher paper. The jaguarundi came dashing up to me when I
called it from the foyer, and it put its front paws on my knees,
sniffing for the fish. I could feel its claws through my bluejeans,
and its eyes shone, even in the dim.
I stood in the kitchen, watching the maid fry the fish in a teaspoon
of corn oil, then pick the bones out, then spoon it into the
jaguarundi's dish on the tile floor.
"This fish is very expensive," the maid said, wiping
her hands on her apron.
"Yes," I said.
I went home and
wrote a poem about brambles and hazelnuts, bumble bees, the gossamer
blue cast to the winter morning. I started to write Manette a
letter, something about the economic recovery program the new
president called the 'PIRE'. "Your maid would call it the
'pyre'," I wrote. Ha ha. I crumpled that one up and tossed
it in the trash. I started another letter, about how Francisco
Sosa, the main street in Coyoacán, had been cleaned up
now that the president's family had their house there, near the
bridge over the river and the terracotta-colored sixteenth century
chapel. Armed soldiers patrolled the street outside, looking
bored, smoking cigarettes. Inflation was more than two hundred
percent, I wrote her in another letter. There was no sugar, or
flour in the supermarket. There were campesinos, I told her on
the back of a postcard, (a garish view of Acapulco by night),
who came to the city and drank gasoline and then lit a match
and breathed fire. The people in their cars at stoplights gave
them coins. I saw this from the window of a public bus. I thought
I might go to Chang Mai after Christmas, I wrote, or Marrakesh,
I kept the letters I wrote to Manette in my jacket pocket; the
poems I wrote about her, by my bedside table. All through that
winter, I came to see the jaguarundi in the afternoons; yet somehow,
I always forgot to ask the maid for their address.
Manette had left her paints, her brushes, canvases, everything.
I couldn't imagine what she was doing in Vienna. Manette didn't
read much, or watch television. The opera didn't go on all day.
I'd been to Vienna, but even still I imagined it as a closed,
black damp place, where old people huddled in unheated apartments,
Her studio was in a padlocked shed at the back of the garden,
overgrown with ragged bougainvillea. Through a tiny window I
could see the corner of her 'jungle pastiche' painting, where
she had left it on the easle. Pinned on the walls were pencil
sketches of the jaguarundi: its head, from different angles,
with its eyes shut, opened, its ears sleek against its skull;
one hind leg, its rosebud nose, lolling on its back, pouncing
on a shard of pottery. With the dry season though, the bougainvillea
blossomed and spread, purple, brilliant orange, and the small
I drank all the schnapps, and most of the tequila. I smoked the
marijuana I found stashed in the bathroom, and I wound up and
listened to every single music box. I shuffled through Uwe's
black and white photographs: of Indian women in headdresses made
of live iguanas; the volcanoes ringed with clouds, like scarves;
a snapshot of B. Traven in his library on the Calle Mississippi.
I brought the jaguarundi tuna, and huachinango and once, a bit
of catnip a friend drove down from Laredo. Soon I didn't have
to clap, or to call for the jaguarundi; it was waiting for me
in the shadows of the foyer, at the same hour every afternoon.
After it ate, the jaguarundi would pad into the living room and
jump up to lie next to me on the sofa. It would lick its whiskers,
or the pads of its paws; it would purr loudly, and flick its
tail with contentment. Sometimes the jaguarundi rubbed its chin
against my leg, asking me to tickle its ears.
The days passed like this, one after the other, and another.
I wrote an article about mariachis for the Canadian magazine,
and a sort of philosophical essay on the floating gardens at
Xochimilco. I reviewed the galleys for another chapbook. I read
travel guides, to India, North Africa; I considered living in
a settlement on the edge of Hudson Bay. And then the rainy season
began again, suddenly, with a violent downpour.
"I am sitting in your living room," I scribbled to
Manette. I crumpled the paper in my fist.
"I was fucking your wife," I wrote to Uwe.
I asked the maid for their address.
The next afternoon, I brought the jaguarundi a sting ray. The
maid wrinkled her nose at it, but I told her not to worry, the
meat was like tuna only with a slightly sharper, salty taste.
Go ahead and boil it, I said, and I went into the living room.
I opened the liquor cabinet, and lined up what was left: a finger
of tequila, anise liqueur, Campari, gin, a shot of the prickly
pear brandy. I poured them all into a tumbler. The liquor filled
a little more than half the glass. The mixture was a reddish
brown, like coagulated blood. I drank it all. Then I sat on the
sofa, waiting for the room to fall apart.
When the jaguarundi jumped up, I skidded my hand along its back.
I began to kiss it on the scruff, between its eyes, and I hugged
it until it cried, until it clawed at me, spat at me and hissed.
It wriggled away, finally and I staggered into the bathroom and
threw up in the toilet.
"You are singing Oaxaca?" the maid shouted through
the bathroom door. Maids would speak this way to foreigners.
"You ate some sting ray?"
"No!" I shouted, my knuckles white on the edge of the
toilet bowl. "I'll be all right," I said. I lost my
balance and fell to the floor.
The light was a pale rosy grey when I woke up, with a sour taste
in my mouth, and a blinding headache. I touched my fingertips
to my face: it was crusted with fresh scabs. There was a musty
smell, from the eiderdown duvet, I realized, on Manette's bed.
I heard the jaguarundi's raspy purr: it was curled at the foot
of the bed, watching me carefully. When I sat up, it scampered
into the closet, its long tail swishing behind it.
I remembered then that I hadn't yet affixed the postage to those
letters. I clapped my hands, once, weakly. I sank back into the
pillow, and slept until late afternoon.
When I left the clouds were a fretwork, spent and drifting. The
cobblestones were slick and the air smelled of earth, and gasoline.
Some days later, I came back with a pair of plastic earrings
for the maid, and a huachinango.
"Ah," the maid said, her eyes very round, as she took
the packages. She had on a clean apron. I asked for the jaguarundi.
She called out its name, but the jaguarundi did not come. She
shrugged. "Would you like a tequila?" she asked.
"But aren't we out of liquor?" I tried to approximate
a sheepish look. I had my hands in my pockets.
"Oh," she murmured. She knit her brow, as if she suddenly
recognized something large and obvious. She crossed her arms
over her chest. "The Señor Uwe is home," she
blurted. She seemed to intuit what she needed to say from my
expression. "He went to the store," she said, "to
"Thank you," I said, and I left.
The next day, I came home to find an enormous canvas wrapped
in brown paper stood up against my bed. It was Manette's unfinished
'jungle pastiche'. Henri Rousseau's lion peeped out from the
long grasses; there were mina birds, and banana trees, vermillion
hawaiianas, and a spider monkey, swinging from a vine. Picasso's
harlequin sprawled in the ferns, smoking a joint. Manette had
painted me and the Venus de Milo waltzing through a blank sky.
I looked for the jaguarundi; she said she'd painted it in, but
I couldn't find it.
The next day, I flew to Cairo with my dufflebag and my typewriter.
I left the landlady my styrofoam coffee cups, a half empty box
of laundry detergent, and the painting. I was going to write
a series of articles about the River Nile, but I ended up doing
something on bellydancers, and the oud, and Anwar Sadat's novel.
I ended up spending a winter in Alexandria, writing sonnets;
then a couple of years in Tangiers in an apartment behind the
souk, with a view of the straights, the swallows, the biscuit-white
shores of Spain.
I didn't think much about Mexico. It seemed exotic, the further
away I was from it, like Cairo itself, the wildly colored turbans
the women wore in Nairobi, like an emerald twilight. Every once
in awhile, The International Herald Tribune would print a few
column inches about Mexico, with a photograph of a high-rise
beach hotel, or a woman picking through a mountain of garbage.
I read that there were earthquakes in Mexico City, in 1985. I
was worried, and I considered calling, but then I met someone
on a plane who told me most of the damage was in the Colonia
Centro, where cheap hotels and rotting palaces and vecindades
were built over the ancient lake bed. The earthquakes hadn't
affected Coyoacán, which was on volcanic rock. The price
of crude oil fell, drastically, the president was booed and heckled
at the World Cup Soccer matches. The fans trashed the Sanborn's
where I used to go to buy American magazines. A team of fresh-faced
economists was renegotiating the foreign debt.
I suppose I could say the flat headed North African cats reminded
me of the jaguarundi, or that I had some kind of epiphany when
I went out to see, dutifully (but without a camera), the Sphinx.
Or that I once spent an afternoon in a village near Luxor drinking
cheap white wine with a Dutch girl who had a laugh, and hair,
exactly like Manette's. Or that I went with her to her hotel
room and ran my hands down her shoulderblades, drew my fingers
along the rim of her collarbone, like a fan of feathers skimming
smooth bark. And that afterwards, I listened to her tell me about
Uxmál and Chichén, as if I'd never been there,
I'd never heard of them, and everything she said, she did, even
the way she smelled, was new, and surprising.
I don't know if I could say all that; if it would be true, really.
I did see Manette again, once, briefly. I met her for breakfast
at a Sanborn's near my hotel in the Colonia Centro. This was
in 1992, when most of the earthquake damage had been repaired,
although there were still a few empty lots here and there, boarded
up with plywood. Another president was privatizing the banks;
everyone was talking about a free trade agreement with the U.S.
and Canada. The stock market had sailed up like a skyrocket,
and my father had been calling me, telling me I should buy Telmex,
She wore a red suit that looked tight at the hips. Her hair was
cut short, pulled back with a plastic headband. No, she hadn't
painted anything in ages, there wasn't room in her apartment.
Uwe had gone back to his first wife in Vienna. She had thought
about moving to Houston, she said, but she was offered a job
translating reports for the American Chamber of Commerce. It
was fun, she said. It was nearby.
We ate hotcakes, and drank coffee. She took out her compact and
put on her lipstick. I lit a Marlboro. She'd been doing tai chi,
on Saturdays, at the Casa de Cultura in Coyoacán. She'd
been going to the 'Beverly Hills Workout' at the Plaza Inn mall.
The jaguarundi was in the zoo.
We split the bill. When I pushed back my chair, she touched my
"Where will you be going?" she said. She had fine lines
around her eyes now.
"Chiapas," I said.
"You are?" Her voice was very soft. "Will you
"I don't know," I said.
It crossed my mind, as we said goodbye in the street, that she
expected me to kiss her. But she was wearing heavy makeup, and
I didn't want to smudge it.
I was back in Mexico City the following week, and I went, to
pass a few hours before my plane left, for old time's sake, or
for some reason I don't really want to admit to myself, to the
Chapultepec Zoo. I bought a hotdog and an orange soda and I walked
along the winding paths shaded by eucalyptus and ancient ahuehuetes.
The tiger I had fed so many years ago had died. The panda was
on loan to a zoo in Washington D.C., a little plaque said. I
saw a gorilla with its tiny baby, a family of gibbons, a frantic
chinchilla in a small cage. The zoo was nearly empty, but for
a noisy group of schoolchildren in their navy blue uniforms.
An old man sat on a bench, tossing popcorn to the pigeons.
I found the jaguarundi in a glassed-in cage, in a pavilion near
the exit. It was sleeping, its head in its paws. Its fur was
speckled with white. It looked thin. The cage had a backdrop
painted to look like a jungle, with sloppy olive green banana
trees and a cloudless, turquoise sky. I clapped my hands, but
the jaguarundi didn't move. Its food dish was covered with flies.
I clapped my hands again, louder this time, and its eyes flicked
open. The jaguarundi looked at me without moving. Then it yawned,
and rolled over on its side.
I thought I might tap on the glass, call out its name. But for
the life of me, I couldn't remember what it was.