By Anndee Hochman
On La Avenida de los Cocos, with a hundred pesos in your pocket, you can buy a tortilla press, a liter of Lala milk, several strings of dried chiles, a fringed sundress made in India, or sweet rolls and café con leche for three. Maybe, once upon a time, the street lived its name: a dirt lane snaking between leafy fronds, with hard, green coconuts bunched overhead. But by the time we visited, in the spring of 2006, it was a pitted road hemmed by broken sidewalks, a market yanked inside out, with people and products spilling in all directions.
“PÃ¡sele, pÃ¡sele. Buen precio! Good price for you. Over here!” Strawberries heaped in a wheelbarrow. Exhaust huffing from an idled taxi. Dead chickens dangling their necks over a tiled counter; a woman fanning them with what looked like last year’s cheerleading pompom. Nasal honk of the PetatlÃ¡n bus. Crushed marigolds. Ripe avocados.
Sasha twinkled her way through the chaos, a five-year-old sparkplug of energy and bravada. On our first days in Zihuatanejo, my partner and I were nervous to let her dance ahead of us like that. Then we realized we weren’t likely to lose sight of her: ivory-skinned girl in size-three Land’s End sandals, chirping “hola” with a north-of-the-border accent. The taffeta-skirted dress she insisted on wearing, even on an excursion to buy bottled water. And the patch, a circle of pink felt, embroidered with a butterfly, that slipped over her glasses and occluded her right eye.
At home, we’d become adept at fielding questions about the patch, which Sasha had been wearing since age four. At her check-up that year, she held the plastic paddle over her right eye and began to “read” the chart: “A square? A star? A pig?” I squinted my own myopic eyes. There were no pigs. “Hmm…” said the pediatrician. “Let’s try the other eye.”
A week later, an opthamologist delivered the startling news: Sasha’s left-eye vision was 20/400, meaning letters a perfectly sighted person could read from 20 feet away would need to be magnified to, say, the size of a movie marquee before Sasha could decipher them. If the diagnosis was extreme, the prescription was mild: patch the “good eye” four hours a day, forcing the “bad one” to pony up and learn to see. Amblyopia, the doctor said. Lazy eye. Pretty common. Easy to fix. Good thing you caught it early.
What wasn’t so easy to fix was the myth of our motherly omnipotence: You mean, she hasn’t been seeing out of the left eye, all these years, and we didn’t even know? Then the patches arrived, three of them, from an online store that sold 40 different varieties—dragons and soccer balls and ballerinas, spoonfuls of design sugar to make the medicine go down. Sasha didn’t mind so much, once she got used to the tickle of felt against her nose. But to me, the patch looked enormous, a clumsy billboard on my child’s perfect landscape of a face.
I took it personally: Would people think we’d blackened her eye and were trying to hide the evidence? Would they imagine an unspeakable accident involving a garden tool and a moment’s parental distraction? Would they won- der if Sasha even had an eye under that little pink cloak?
Kids were the first to ask. “What’s wrong with your eye?” demanded a stocky boy at a Denver playground. Sasha shrugged, punting the question to me, and I launched into my earnest rap: “Well, one eye is stronger than the other, so she wears that patch on the strong eye to make the weaker one work harder.”
Adults were more tentative. Some- times they whispered, as if we might not have told Sasha that a felt disc was covering one-quarter of her face. “Is she … okay?” they’d say, sotto voce. And I’d do the rap again, a PG-13 version that included the word “amblyopia,” while the person nodded sympathetically.
We never used the words “good” or “bad” to describe Sasha’s ocular problem. We tried not to parse the world that way. Girls who came home from birthday parties without ice cream on their clothes weren’t necessarily “good,” and the boy at daycare who sank his little dragon-teeth into the teacher’s fore- arm was no monster; he was “still learning not to bite.” I didn’t want Sasha thinking that a part of her body was “bad” or deficient. I didn’t even like the word “lazy,” which, to me, conjured a bloke in a Barcalounger eating Pringles straight out of the can.
Nope. No lazy eyes in our family. Just stronger ones and ones that, well, needed to do their exercises! Like when Mama and Ama go to the gym! Just four hours a day! Make it work! We sounded like Jane Fonda, amped up and a little insane, touting an exercise video for wayward toddler eyes.
In Mexico, it was a different story. We’d come as the fulfillment of a fantasy older than Sasha, a fantasy conceived in our late twenties, when new love made any crazy scheme seem possible. “Let’s live in Mexico someday,” one of us said, over microbrews in a Portland pub. “Yeah… for a whole year. In a casita painted just like Frida Kahlo’s place.” Then we blinked and turned forty; we had a kid, a mortgage, and jobs that—sorry!—didn’t provide paid sabbaticals. We downsized our dream to three weeks in Zihuatanejo, the spring before Sasha started kindergarten.
When people asked, “Why Mexico?” we said we wanted to immerse ourselves in another culture. But what did we really mean by that? Was it a yen to eat corn tortillas instead of poppy-seed bagels for breakfast, or to brush our teeth with bottled water, or to swat at southern-hemisphere mosquitos? For me, Mexico was partly a linguistic challenge: had six years of weekly Spanish lessons equipped me to communicate beyond “DÃ³nde estÃ¡ el baÃ±o, por favor?”
I hadn’t done much traveling outside the United States, but I knew this: Mexico would be a kick in the khaki shorts, reminding us that the things we took for granted—dental care, clean tap water, windows made of glass—were actually privileges. Three weeks in a town of 120,000 sounded about right: long enough to learn where to mail a letter and how to find the best café con leche. Long enough, I hoped, to smudge the line between “foreign” and “familiar.”
That first morning on La Avenida de los Cocos, who were the real strangers? That broad-bosomed woman in the impossibly white dress, stripping muddy leaves from bunch after bunch of radishes? The one-legged man, guitar slung across his back, limping across the street with a rough-edged 4×4 as a crutch? Or us, las Americanas, winter-pale in our summer clothes, two women scurrying to keep up with a waltzing girl in a party dress and a mariposa eye patch.
“Que pasÃ³ con su ojo?” Luz Maria asked just minutes after handing over our key. She owned the bungalow that would be our home for the next three weeks. I tried to explain, but my Spanish was limited in opthamologic vocabulary: “Ella tiene un ojo que es mas fuerte que el otro, entonces … um, el otro ojo tiene que trabajar mas. Me entiendes?”
Sasha’s patch, of course, wasn’t the only—or even the most obvious—sign of our foreignness. We were Americans, with the means to spend nearly a month abroad. We were a lesbian couple in a Catholic country—a modest culture, judging by the local women’s bathing suits—and I wasn’t eager to alienate our host on the first afternoon. So when she asked, “Quien es la madre?”—”Who is the mother?”—I swallowed before answering.
“Nos dos. Somos una pareja, y noso- tras cuidamos a Sasha juntos.” We’re a couple, and we take care of her together. Luz Maria nodded—did she really get it? She glanced at Sasha, who was rocking her doll in a green hammock. “Pobrecita.” Did she mean Sasha was a poor little thing because of her eye, or because she didn’t have a father, or something else entirely beyond my cross-cultural understanding? Luz Maria went inside and shut her door.
During our stay in Zihua, we cooked glistening fish we’d bought in the mercado and ate mangos every day. I slaughtered a flying cockroach with a rolled-up copy of Philadelphia magazine. Sasha, with her weaker eye, spotted a giant iguana that, to me, looked like dirty stonework on the roof of our bungalow. We all turned the color of toast.
My Spanish lessons served well enough to inquire about whether the ice was purified and explain to Luz Maria that we needed liquid soap to wash our dishes. My challenge, it turned out, was not linguistic but existential. I had to learn to relax, to surrender to the rhythms and whims of Mexico: a place where a concert advertised for 6:30 p.m. might get underway by 8, where computers in the Internet “café” (really, a cement-walled garage with a couple of ancient Dell desktops) crashed for no apparent reason, where people seemed resolute rather than restless with their lack of control.
Gradually, I stopped making lists in my head. Stopped worrying about whether we had enough pesos or whether raw tomatoes would give us turista or whether it was safe to snorkel out beyond the rocks. It helped to nap every day, until the great aching well of sleep deprivation was finally filled. It helped to find our own Mexico routines: fish tacos at La Sirena Gorda; papaya juice bought from a man named Jesus; talks with other guests, in a mezcla of English and Spanish, about crime in Mexico City and the presidential campaign posters flapping in the plaza. I even learned to slow my walking pace in the sticky afternoons, when the air was thick as molé.
Though Elissa and I didn’t kiss in public, or walk hand-in-hand the way we would have in San Francisco or Greenwich Village, we didn’t hide the fact that we were a family. We took turns with Sasha in the ocean and traded nights of putting her to bed while the other one sat, reading or writing in her journal, in Luz Maria’s courtyard.
Sasha’s eye patch never stopped drawing stares and questions, particularly from older women. I learned to ex- plain it better, with the help of a pocket dictionary: “Ella tiene ojo flojo”—liter- ally, lazy eye—and the abuelas would laugh. Maybe they were imagining their own version of the muchacho in the Barcalounger. Or maybe “flojo” had a different connotation here—more like “playful” or “easygoing” than “indo- lent.” The abuelas on Avenida de los Cocos remembered us after that, giggling as we came up the street and repeating, as if it were a little song, “Ojo flojo. Ella tiene ojo flojo.” We grinned. They grinned. The gringa girl with the lazy eye. The woman with the kerchief and the missing teeth. Every one of us, blighted. Every one of us, so much more than the thing we lack.
On Mother’s Day, when Mexicans pay extravagant tribute to both La Virgen and their own matrilineage, we returned from our breakfast of huevos and waffles to find Luz Maria waiting in the courtyard. She smiled at the three of us, as if she’d finally glimpsed some- thing with an eye that was a little bit “flojo,” that needed to work hard to see what was right in front of it.
“Buen dia de las madres,” she said, and hugged us both—first Elissa, then me. She bent down and kissed Sasha on the temple, the tender spot where the butterfly patch met her browning, peachy skin.
Author’s Note: I’d been attempting to write this piece for several years, but it took a return trip to Mexico (solo, this time) to finish it. Ten days’ immersion in context—the smells, sights, flavors and painful contradictions of life in Zihuatanejo—helped me find the larger story here: a story not just about my daughter’s amblyopia, but about the partial blindness that prevents all of us from seeing one another in our stunning, imperfect wholeness. Meanwhile, the patches did their job, spectacularly; Sasha’s vision is steady (with glasses) at 20/25. At 12, she’s now petitioning for contact lenses.
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