Each time my husband returns to Pittsburgh from Mexico, I tell him he has that exquisite pueblo smell. It lingers on him for days. I cringe pointing this out: It seems a detail that belongs in the short story of a 19-year-old who has just spent a semester abroad — he smelled of wood smoke, leather and pine as he spun me around — but it is true. He grabs me and pulls me to him, takes a sensuous whiff of my hair: “Mmmmm,” he says. “You smell like Target.”
“Jerk,” I say. Ten years into our relationship, seven into our marriage, it still surprises me to smell my husband, Jorge, exactly as I did the first time we kissed. That was in the cloud forest of Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur, on a dirt road several miles from a tiny village known for its magic mushrooms. We were under the sway of said mushrooms, me talking about yellow and blue worlds, him crying for obscure reasons, then both of us surprisingly serene, eating pears. We leaned in and kissed and his smell surprised me: sweet piney smoke, sun on skin. To smell this in our rented house in Pittsburgh is jolting, but familiar.
It’s the same jolt when Jorge FaceTimes us from a dried-up dam in the isthmus of Oaxaca, cracked earth out of the end times stretching as far as we can see. “Papi, I got gummy bears!” our 2-year-old daughter, Elena, says, and we wave from her Ikea bed with pillows shaped like smiling rainclouds. I read her Sandra Boynton, I feed her spaghetti, I give her a bubble bath, I put her to bed. Back in Mexico, Jorge is pummeled in the head by a pineapple thrown by a reveler from atop a horse, he drinks mezcal and listens to stories of cantina brawls, he photographs drag queens at an all-night party in 100-degree weather.
A year ago, two years ago, I would have felt bitter and angry and jealous when I said goodbye to him. I would have wanted to be there, or wanted him to be here, for us to have the same experience and perspective. Now, I am mostly comfortable on what I recognize as my side of the gap. It took me a long time to admit there is and always will be a gap, between his Mexico and my United States, between the selves that have formed in each. It diminishes and widens depending not on whether we’re in the same country but rather on a particular moment in our lives, what we need, where we seek meaning. Over the years, and especially in parenthood, he becomes more his Mexican self and I more my American one.
I imagine myself as a conglomeration of identities, a — pardon me — melting pot. Not that I imagine I am made up of multiple ethnicities (though I am, from all over Europe) but rather that I imagine I don’t really have an “American” cultural identity so much as a hodgepodge of selves: the traveler, the writer, the mother, the Ohioan. I’m willing to lampoon and interrogate them all, but Jorge is not willing to do this with his pueblo self. He needs at times to sit with an abuelito on a stone patio, sipping cafe de olla, listening to la banda play “Dios Nunca Muere.” He needs that or his soul withers, and he will say this in melodramatic agony with no irony. It has taken me a long time to accept that he can have this, alone, without it taking away from my importance and my place in his life.