The first time I met my husband, he was wearing a single-breasted, peacock-blue suit made of silk. In the khaki and navy blazer culture that was Washington, D.C. at the time, Mario stood out. With his continental name, olive skin, and sartorial flair, many assumed he was Italian. That people were surprised to discover he was Mexican said less about him than it did about their preconceptions, some of which I shared. This was before I’d moved to Mexico, before I’d read The Labyrinth of Solitude, in which Octavio Paz says of the zoot-suit wearing pachuco:
His disguise is a protection, but it also differentiates and isolates him: it both hides him and points him out.
I was interviewing Mario as a potential consultant for the small nonprofit where I worked, famous for advertising condoms on sail boats in overpopulated Bangladesh. As I scanned his resume, I couldn’t decide if this man, nine years my senior, was the most impressive person to sit across my desk, or a bespoke bullshitter. He politely but impassively answered my questions as I scrutinized his timeline, trying to trip him up, or at the very least open him up. How had he managed to do all the things he claimed? I wanted to wipe away the Latinate C.V.-speak, like condensation on a window, and get him to elaborate, quantify, genuflect. Fresh out of my master’s program in public health, I wanted to appear important, be someone who could hire someone like him.
He wasn’t like any of the do-gooders I’d met. He wasn’t earnest or trying to sell himself. In fact, he wasn’t looking for a job, or so he insisted. He was only meeting with me out of courtesy to a friend of his who’d just joined my organization. Later on, I figured it out: Mario was my new colleague’s “show and tell.” In our world of ex Peace Corp volunteers, missionary offspring, and private sector renegades, you didn’t impress people with Rolexes, but Rolodexes: ones filled with people who could get things done in corrupt countries, bend bureaucracies for the social good. Apparently, Mario could do all that. And he wore a Rolex.
It was second-hand, I later found out. He’d given himself a reward for completing a Master’s at Harvard, which he’d pursued after a grueling stint as the Mexican President’s communications director. Prior to crisscrossing the country in military planes with satellite equipment, he had worked with educational T.V. in Tokyo and the BBC in London, filmed artisans in the Amazon for Sesame Street, and started his own publishing company specializing in science books for Mexican children. And now he was interested in dedicating himself to stopping diarrhea (or at least childhood deaths from it)?
I had hennaed red hair at the time, and for a brief moment I flashed to us in the future: the Ricky Ricardo and Lucy of international development.
As attracted as I was to this courteous and somewhat mysterious man, I thought it better to file away my fantasy, preferably in an unmarked folder deep inside a putty-color file cabinet. For one thing, it was a busy time for me, a heady time. I was flying back and forth to Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo —to help design one of Africa’s first HIV prevention programs. I was working closely there with government health officials and my—unbeknownst to them—fiancé, an American from the World Health Organization. We’d met at the National AIDS Office, where he was an “attaché” and had a desk. He was my seeing-eye dog, steering me through alien politics and customs, keeping me out of trouble. If he knew who to pay off and who to flatter, it was because he’d been living in Zaire for seventeen years—most of them with his common law Zairean wife. So, I had more than one reason to keep my engagement secret.
What, I wondered, might Mario, in his peacock blue suit, be hiding?
A little powder, a little paint, makes a girl what she ain’t.
This is what the flushed, fifty-year-old receptionist sing-songed as she applied lipstick at the sink next to me in the women’s bathroom. Some years later, Ru Paul would put it a little differently: “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” The lipstick which matched her hair, which matched a box of Miss Clairol, was always escaping her lips like wild ponies from a corral. She sat at the front desk of Kroll Associates, corporate investigators whose telex resided in my office even though I was a subtenant and not an employee. It was the oracle behind my door that the Kroll brothers, in suspenders, cigars peeking from their shirt pockets, consulted regularly. Once, when it was noisily prophesying, no detectives in sight, I approached and cast a furtive eye. En route to JFK: a shipment of 5,000 fake Rolexes.
It is difficult to determine just how vast my husband’s wardrobe is because it is parceled out, dispersed through the house and across international borders: in the small walk-in closet that he and I share; in our daughter’s bedroom; in an Ikea wardrobe meant for sheets, blankets, and guests; on a rod spanning the entrance to the furnace room; in a canvas closet on wheels next to the furnace; in a long, waist-high closet built just for him that doubles as a sideboard; and in his mother’s and sister’s apartments in Mexico.
Here is a partial inventory:
62 suit jackets
126 shirts (23 with French cuffs)
47 pairs of shoes
17 hats (6 fur)
14 pairs of gloves
83 ties (5 bow ties)
23 pairs of cufflinks
I can’t bring myself to count the socks and underwear.
If you asked him why his clothing is scattered as abundantly as Genghis Khan’s descendents, he would deny a strategy of dissimulation, just as he would deny having too many clothes. He would convince you that it is confusing, inefficient even, to have all one’s clothes in one place. There are seasons and fluctuations in the wearer’s weight that force clothes to emigrate, settle new lands, winter elsewhere. After the storage system has been explained, you would be made to understand how extraordinarily fine the clothes are (and here is where I remove the pronoun “his” and replace it with “the,” as in what designers refers to as “the collection”). Select any item of clothing and you will probably be told one or more of the following: it’s the best brand, made from the highest quality materials, from a city/region/country that specializes in this, it’s one of a kind…He would also impress upon you what good condition the clothes are in. Why donate clothes that are “as good as new”? What if he did lose 10 lbs?
Mario’s clothes have a long half-life with little sign of wear because so many are in rotation, and because he devotes hours each week to their care and preservation. Take dress shirts: the collars are pre-treated, the shirts soaked for a day or two in a small utility sink next to the washer-dryer, then washed in the machine, air dried on hangers, after which he either irons them or takes them to a local drycleaner on Thursday when 6 shirts can be washed and pressed for $5.
He is particularly careful with clothing inherited from his father and his father’s brother, some of it over fifty years old. Mario’s Uncle Enrique, a diplomat, ordered hundreds of identical custom-made shirts in every country he was posted. While he never returned to live in Mexico, he regularly sent home—from London, Geneva, Hong Kong—trunks full of never worn ivory silk shirts with monogrammed shirt sleeves, ascots, and pajamas from Harrods. When Enrique retired, he traded in his Mercedes and tailored clothes for the high life of a Berkeley commune. My husband, Mario Enrique, flew to California for the funeral. He remembers how young the mourners were and how long his uncle’s white hair was in the open casket.
In popular Mexican culture, El Catrín—the dandy—is depicted as an aristocrat fallen on hard times and alternately, a tongue-in-cheek “gentleman,” a wannabe, a fop. A Judas and a dangerous seductor, he is sometimes called a lagartijo, or lizard. He is perhaps best known as one of the 54 cards in the Mexican game of lotería where he wears a coat with tails, a bow tie, spats, and a monocle. Mexico’s version of Mr. Peanut, he holds a cigarette in one hand and a white glove in the other.
Shortly after Mario became director of Mexico’s national AIDS program, he created a prevention campaign—subway posters, spots, and brochures—based on lotería, which is played like bingo. Instead of numbers, characters or images are called out like the Apache, the Mermaid, the Shrimp, the Black Man (who is really El Negrito, the little Black Man), the Scorpion, or the Musician. In one of Mario’s television spots, actors playing the Drunk, the Lady, the Brave Man, and the Dandy are seated at a table together, chatting and having drinks. They are all at risk for HIV unless they use condoms, represented by the lotería card the Life Preserver. The Dandy is the character that gay men are supposed to identify with.
Meanwhile, combing the night clubs of Zaire in search of a pop star willing to sing about HIV/AIDS, I met real life, equatorial dandies known as sapeurs. The name, with its tannin undertone of flaneur, comes from the acronym SAPE: Société des Ambienceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (also known as Société Anonyme des Personnes Elegantes), or society of atmosphere- setters and elegant people. Their look, which has become more retro and outrageous since my time in Zaire, now includes cummerbunds, bowler hats, and sherbet colored suits with matching parasols.
In the late 80s and early 90s, the sapeurs paraded in open air bars reeking of unflushable toilets, wearing knock-off Yohji Yamamoto jackets, designer sunglasses, and ballooning Italian linen pants. At the time, the closest U.S. equivalents were the gay and trans men of color who competed at fashion balls in various categories of realness. If they, in their runway walks, were redefining gender, family, and success, the mostly heterosexual sapeurs were defying a decades-long dictatorship that promoted an ideology of “authenticity.” Under the rule of a President-for-life, whose name meant “the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake,” neither the country nor the river could be called Congo. Christian names were banned, and Western style men’s jackets were replaced by the abacost, a neologism from French for “down with the suit.”
The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance.
When Mario met me, I wore turbans, Tuareg necklaces, an armful of medieval looking silver bracelets, hand-made two tone shoes for men, harem pants, tie-dyed slips, elbow length poison green leather gloves, and even a leopard skin pill box hat given to me by a former boyfriend.
Decades later, clothes don’t interest me much. I avoid shopping for them. Mario brings me jewelry from the many countries he travels to, some of it designed by him, which I appreciate but rarely wear. Have I become a believer in “the purifying effects of asceticism,” a belief that, according to Paz afflicts many more gringos than Mexicans, causing them to take life a little too seriously?
If Mario is serious about clothing, confrontation is his divertissement. He loves nothing more than a good fight, which can be anything from arguing with border agents, office building security guards or police officers who fail to address him as “Mr. Bravo,” to filing a whistleblower suit against the World Bank. A good fight unwinds him better than a cocktail or a massage. As the weeks pass by without one, he becomes agitated, at loose ends. If anyone can get an airline upgrade, a response from the U.S. Treasury, or beat out a crooked Mexican developer for a piece of land, it is Mario. He never takes no for an answer.
Unlike him, I am a terrible negotiator. I hate tension and am quick to compromise. Just because I’m conflict averse doesn’t mean I don’t hurt people. It used to be I inflicted pain with sarcasm, which in my adolescence I thought of as a social lubricant. Now I hurt people through inattention. The effects of it invariably catch me by surprise, like discovering my sweater is inside-out, my self-centeredness visible as washing instructions.
Even though I began smoking pot at age 11, I never really rebelled against my mother and stepfather. They even said as much, only faulting me for “showing off in front of friends,” which meant disdaining my parents for an audience of my peers. In my teens and twenties, I used drugs, had sex with inappropriate people in inappropriate places, and took other risks that might have conferred the honorary, “bad girl.” But I executed these small rebellions without repercussion, either in school or at any of my jobs. Other than in my style of dress, I have been anything but defiant. I am essentially law abiding, cautious, fearful. These days, my greatest transgression is mis-shelving items at the grocery store: If “I’m not feeling” that bag of frozen pineapple I plopped into my shopping cart a few aisles over, I place it behind a box of cereal. Just confessing this makes me laugh out loud, which shows I’m not as removed from my adolescent self as I’d like to think.
Adolescents and dandies never pass a mirror without looking. More than glass, “other people” are the dandy’s mirror, said Camus, but one “that quickly becomes clouded, it’s true, since human capacity for attention is limited.” If Mario’s wardrobe is a portfolio of blue chip stocks, people’s reactions to them—their comments—are the dividends. When either my daughter or I wear something new for the first time, Mario’s first question when we return home is, “Did anyone comment?” It’s become a running joke between us. To Carrie after the prom: Yes, but before you were drenched in pig’s blood, did anyone say anything about your dress?
Words are the clothes thoughts wear. —Samuel Beckett
No matter what I think or write, someone else has already pulled those same words from hangers, rooted them out of drawers, and put them on. What is old is new again, which is why in this interminable season of skinny jeans, you should not give away your wide tie, wide lapels or wide legged pants. And yet, just as clothes make the man, words also shape thought. When I was young, if I told my mother, “I can’t explain it,” she would reply imperiously: “If you can’t put it into words, you don’t really understand it.
“Obviously, we speak to communicate,” said George Steiner, “but also to conceal, to leave unspoken.” We dress to convey something but also to hide our physical flaws, fears, or a secret self we reveal to only a few. When I quote George Steiner, I am writing in drag. Sometimes what we are attempting to cover up becomes the message: the woman’s shirt buttoned to the neck screams décolletage. Or as one writer told another who was having trouble with her latest novel, “The obstacle is the substance.” When I ask a friend who lives in Mexico why her son wants to study law in England, she says: “for the wigs.”
Cantinflas, the stage name for Mexican film star Mario Moreno Reyes, was famous for playing characters who spoke, sometimes at great length, without saying anything. His name even became a verb accepted by the Royal Spanish Academy: cantinflear. A politician, policeman, or professor played by Cantinflas is a master of obfuscation and comical equivocation. Watching the characters he created is like watching a basketball team that’s up by one basket hold the ball—dribbling and passing endlessly—in the last 45 seconds of the game.
The letters of the alphabet are not equals to each other, due to the fact that some are different from the others, and the others are distinct from all the rest. On top of this situation of things being not the same, we also have the upper case letters and the lower case letters…the upper case are those that are accustomed to being the larger and the lower case, for lack of vitamins or literary development, continue to be stunted. (From the movie, “El Analfabeto” [The Illiterate One])
The characters are usually shabbily dressed, representing Mexico’s invisible poor, but their way with words, as they run circles around all who listen, draws attention and admiration. They manage to take loitering, a crime, and turn it into a rhetorical device, the way the dandy took the gentleman and his life of leisure and created the flaneur. If Cantinflas’ characters are unsubjugatable, it’s thanks to their verbal dandyism.
Octavio Paz argued that the “grotesque dandyism” of the pachuco, the pioneer of Mexican-American gangster chic, was more a demonstration of his will to “to remain different” than a criticism of the “injustice and incapacity of a society that has failed to assimilate him.” While Cantinflas’ doubletalk is as outrageous as a belt-to-knee watch fob, his puns are silk handkerchiefs. They peek elegantly from suit pockets, but wrapped inside is a razor: “Y como decía Napoleón: El que parte y reparte, le toca su Bonaparte,” which translates roughly to, “As Napoleon used to say: He who partitions and apportions gets the best part” (Bonaparte).
It is first and foremost the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality, bounded only by the limits of proprieties.
- Charles Baudelaire, “The Dandy”
In our first years of marriage, while living in Mexico, I continued to dye or henna my hair red. When people asked if the carnelian color was natural, I freely confessed it wasn’t, even offering that my real color was somewhere between ash blonde and light brown. “Don’t tell them that,” Mario would admonish. “You’re ruining it,” it being the art of me. If last minute dinner guests had to be fed, I was quick to reassure them, “it’s no trouble at all—I have leftovers I can heat up.” What would have put Americans at ease, convinced them that they weren’t imposing, conveyed the opposite of what Mario wanted: Of course, we will whip up a delicious meal for you at a moment’s notice and serve it on our best plates at the dining table because… any friend of mine is a special person, and this is how we live even when no one is looking.
If someone commented on my sweater or a pair of pants, asking me where I’d bought them, I would answer truthfully, and worst of all, tell them how little I’d paid for it. I got it on sale, I’d say—not as a boast but as an enjoinder. But in Mexico, information—even signaling that you will take a left turn—is power, and it should never be shared unencrypted. Share it freely with whoever asks and you might as well leave the house naked.
We tell lies for the mere pleasure of it, like all imaginative peoples, but we also tell lies to hide ourselves and to protect ourselves.
- Octavio Paz, “Mexican Masks”
I am a terrible liar. You can tell if I’m lying by the way my lips stay slightly parted after telling a lie—as if I were leaving space for the truth to rush out with a bucket and mop to clean up the mess. Maybe this is why I’m incapable of writing fiction. I prefer nonfiction where the lies are like thinning hair on the back of the head. The scalp glows through, visible to all except the person who brushed what appeared to her as a full head of hair and liked what she saw in the mirror. In the end, the premise of memoir—of disclosure—is nothing more than an elaborate comb-over.
Mario believes in white lies—what in Mexico are called “pious lies”—in dressing the truth. He understands that lies often tell a truth far better than the truth.
When our daughter was six months old, we traveled with her to Seville for Mario’s work, which is how we managed to stay at one of the city’s best hotels. Shortly after arriving, we discovered that the King’s mother was also staying there—on our same floor—and we sometimes saw a room service tray outside her door. Did we take a leftover banana from it to feed our daughter who couldn’t crawl yet and was just beginning to eat solid foods? I don’t remember. All I know is that in the years since, our brief stay in Seville has been reduced to a few photos—her in a Baby Bjorn peeking from her father’s Dracula-like Spanish cape, and her, naked and twisting to my breast like an El Greco painting—and an anecdote that didn’t happen: the morning our daughter escaped our hotel room on all fours to steal a banana from the Queen and eat it. To this day, there is only one fruit our daughter refuses, but maybe that is my lie.
Or the story about Mario’s great aunt Tia Simone, a 5’ x 5’ in an apron with a long fat braid, who not only made her own pulque (an alcoholic drink made from the sap of the century plant), but hoisted the immense magueys all by herself with a pitchfork to aerate them. It was to her ranch in the countryside that Mario and his siblings were sent whenever they had vacations. They were city kids raised by a single mother and a hypochondriacal weekend-father who insisted that they wear winter coats, scarves, and hats whenever the temperature dropped to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of all their coddling, they were sickly and feeble, and it was Tia Simone’s job to toughen them up, a job she apparently relished. She would tell them, after they’d been playing outside all day with the “country kids,” many of them dressed in the city kids’ hand-me-downs, to strip naked, and she would hose them down with frigid well water. Once when Mario complained to her about yet another sore throat, she ordered him into the fields to find a chameleon and bring it back to her. That was easy. He knew how to catch them, and used to bring bucketfuls to sell at school. Fifteen minutes later, he presented her with one, and she withdrew a kitchen knife from her apron and slit the chameleon in two like a bollilo before placing it, still pulsating, on Mario’s throat. And—drum roll—he’s never had a sore throat since.
I adore this story of Mario’s—the elements of it, and what it means for him. I love how it encapsulates mestizaje or the myth of cultural mixing, only in his version of history, the indigenous culture conquers the Spanish, represented by Mario’s engineer father with Basque roots. I have heard him tell this story at least twenty times, but after twenty-five years of marriage, I still don’t know who he lost his virginity to. Early on in our relationship, I learned that sharing these intimacies—an obligatory rite with every previous romantic partner—would not be part of our relationship. Fine, I thought: By withholding, we can preserve mystery. Let us undress in the dark. Perhaps that’s how love is kept alive. And on good days with Mario, I still think this. On the not-good days, I am reminded, having lived six years in Mexico, that information is power and that marriage depends upon a balance of it. There is a reason no one negotiates naked.
I write about Mario’s devotion to dress as a way of acknowledging our mutual need for disguise, but also to be seduced by him anew: to recall the glossy peacock blue of him, what was and still is unknowable in him. So often I write to understand—to bring close what is far away—but here I write to make the familiar strange once again. If I can catalogue our differences, celebrate that chasm, there’s a place to fall in (love).
Today, Mario texts us from France. He is over-nighting there to break the long trip home from West Africa where he’s been devising strategies to contain Ebola. Yes, twenty five years after we first met in that Washington office, he is working to stop diarrhea. In his text message to me and our daughter at college, he says he’s in a Japanese store in Paris that specializes in colorful stockings and tights. But what he’s seen there and wants to buy are shirts made from a special fabric that takes body heat and stores it the way batteries store solar power. “Small or extra small?” he asks us. “Long sleeve or short? Green, beige, white, black or gray?” A few minutes later, he texts again: he’s bought us heat-retaining leggings to match.