Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals.
She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.
By Elaine Lennon
We are all stars! The textured package alone was alluring. When she opened it a cloud of white satin fabric revealed a plunging bodice and a floral appliquéd A-line skirt with a tulle underskirt. Just the kind of dress Marilyn Monroe would have worn, the online catalogue advised. A snip at $400. She inhaled the movie star association from the polyester lining.
On the dating app where she had been swiping left for weeks she thought she had found a potentially nice guy based south of the border. How hard could it be to meet him? They had chatted several times and he could have no idea she was in Newport Beach.
“I don’t need a visa,” she told Sigsworth, the peroxided English dude she double-jobbed for as they talked on Zoom.
“You’re so not underemployed,” he drawled. “Aren’t they going to find out when you’re not in the same time zone?”
“It’s only two hours and I can do both,” said Violet. “What do you need from me each day – more than a couple of hours? I can programme remotely. I’m already doing my everyday stuff from home.”
“Aren’t they tracking you?”
“Only my productivity. They don’t care where I am.”
“Not the point. What do you know about this guy you want to meet? And why do you want to move to one of the busiest most dangerous cities on earth when the world is on fire?” asked Sigsworth. “Can’t you just continue to talk online? He doesn’t have to know where you live? Or does he already? And – hey – did you find him or did he find you?”
“I’ve never travelled,” said Violet, bypassing scrutiny as she screwed up her eyes, feigning interest in a non-existent glitch. ”I need a new experience. After what happened.”
“You should go to Puerto Vallarta, Miss Film Buff. See where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shacked up. It’s called the Casa Kimberly. You can stay there you know. Get chocolate martinis and read their dog-eared Arthur Hailey novels. Why not just go down there on a weekend trip? You can afford it! I should know!”
“The Night of the Iguana. Did people think it was a horror movie? I could do that. Sure. But I need a real break.”
“I get it. But I’m concerned. Is it safe?” asked Sigsworth.
Violet watched her sometime employer lean into the screen.
“You mean a woman alone?” asked Violet in a voice of cod-concerned expression honed from personal security talks they used to give at college.
“I’m a white man twice your age and I’d think twice about going there even on a luxury package,” said Sigsworth.
“Who says I’m not? It’s not Chiapas. I’m not a student. I won’t get on a bus. I might even go to the Island of Women. Isla las Mujeres. Down in Quintana Roo. I’ll pay homage to the goddess Ixchel and walk up and down archaeological sites with my big girl hiking boots,” said Violet carefully, trying out new Spanish words.
“Your whole life is an island. Newport. Balboa. So you know a few words of español. Bully for you. And what’s Joan Didion’s daughter got to do with it? I’m worried about you. How many Blasians do you think there are in Mexico City?” he asked her.
“Probably more than Newport Beach,” said Violet. “Didn’t you know I’m their very own Naomi Osaka?”
“You’re a tennis ace too? Well done! What do you even know about Mexico,” Sigsworth persisted.
“Wrong season. October to March. We’re in June.”
“Hat dances. Mariachi bands. Frida Kahlo. Bandidos. Pancho Villa. Soccer. Tequila.”
“Clichés and stereotypes.”
“Burritos. Guacamole. Chicken mole. Tamales. Quesadillas,” Violet replied with exaggerated emphasis.
“And you can’t get those at Taco Bell,” said Sigsworth.
Violet furrowed her brow looking at another screen. “Disapprove of me much? That’s my real work calling. The business of data analytics doesn’t stop for lunch. I have to go.” She signed off.
She was like Marion Crane fleeing Phoenix but without $40,000 in her purse. She completed the Forma Migratoria Múltiple on board the sparsely populated JustFly flight out of Los Angeles. She read a translation of poetry by Efrén Rebolldeo. When the plane hit the steaming tarmacadam runway at Aeroporto Internacional de la Ciudad México – or MEX according to the IATA code – she was hit by a wall of heat that immediately inflamed her nostrils and seared every pore on her body. She choked in the thick humidity.
In the milling maskless crowds she followed advice to buy a taxi voucher from a machine and waited quietly as her entire being dripped a veil of perspiration. Her movement slowed. She pressed her face with its wet sheen to the air-conditioned car window for the twenty minute drive along the orbital road and then through avenues to Central Zone that blazed with colour and life and strange foliage and dried-out streets and church spirals and a thronging metropolis that made lockdown and a global pandemic seem a world away.
The still cool air of the high-rise Centro Historico hotel on Avenue Juarez with its veined marble floors and tiered fountains made her shiver when she stepped in from the portico away from the outside hum. It felt like a funeral parlour. She had chosen her destination because it was where John Huston had set up a meeting with the author B. Traven and the elusive German hadn’t shown up. That was in 1946.
Kim es tu nombre de pilia o tu apellido? Is Kim your first name or your surname? She got that a lot. Paolo the prissy receptionist handed her the key to her suite with a grimace
She took ice cream and a Sidral Mundet from the mini-bar and lay on the bed coverlet, the motion of the overhead fan hypnotising her into evening slumber.
That night from her balcony she identified the Art Nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes across the park, all lit up like a celebration, a monumental iced cake with sparklers and candy. She got the wi-fi code from the front desk and watched a Vice channel documentary about Tulum on her laptop and fell into a troubled sleep of plumed serpents and Mayan sacrifices and beheadings and woke up in a cold sweat.
Breakfast at Café La Blanca consisted of huevos rancheros and coffee. She remembered too late she couldn’t stomach refried beans and raced to the toilet. On the corner an accordion player sang Pobre Soñador. She was disturbed by the constant noise and omnipresent dog shit.
She walked to the El Zócalo and trudged through the Metropolitan Cathedral built on the site of the Teocalli. She bought new shades from a kiosk as well as a newspaper she couldn’t read and some Chiclets. You couldn’t get them at home any more. She walked around the National Palace and the Palace of Justice and checked her emails sitting on a wooden seat, out of the sunshine.
A voice note about her new report forced her back to the hotel where she hurriedly read an article in The Washington Post and filed her thoughts on the company site. She checked the weekly log and ticked the boxes for an online meeting due in two days.
She spent the afternoon walking around the Palacio gazing at the Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo murals but mostly she sat outside on stone benches, trying to gather her thoughts and ignore the skin peeling off the tip of her nose. Police helicopters buzzed above.
She gasped when she hit an asterisked tab on her phone. Newport Family Killed in Collision with Car Transporter read the sub-heading on the VoiceofOC.org. She didn’t read it every day. Just every week or so, when she needed to recalibrate her situation and remind herself that life was for living not mourning. She couldn’t stop remembering. The story still shocked her. Her heart quickened at the black and white photos of her mother, her father, her little sister. They never knew what hit them. Pieces of their automobile lying like crushed petals in the glare of late afternoon sun on the CA-1 North. These days she didn’t panic so much at thoughts of their empty house. Especially now she wasn’t there.
Twenty-four hours after her arrival she was weak from the heat and went downstairs to the Bamer Bar, a cave of older travellers, men in slick suits and Silicon Valley ex-pats who had had the same idea as she did, plotting their working from home routine in another country, trying to cover their tracks, making the most of their dollars when the going was good: COVID Casablanca.
Another woman was standing at the bar, drink in hand.
Ingrid Irigoyen introduced herself with a margarita. “Did you know Marilyn Monroe’s mother was born in México?” The older woman had an attractive fierceness about her, all long swirling brunette hair, legs that went on forever and a bright dazzling smile. Her cashmere clothes clung to her as though their life depended on it.
“Marilyn Monroe was Mexican? Hell of an opening line, lady,” said Violet with a smile. “Do you work for the tourist agency?”
“Specialising in movie fans,” said Ingrid. She nodded to the bartender who whipped up a cocktail with Tom Cruise-like speed. “Piedras Negras, Coahuila, in 1900.”
“You’re wearing that shirt,” said Ingrid trying not be vulgar as she lowered her gaze down Violet’s chest by way of explanation. It was a faux vintage tee with a slashed neckline that Violet had picked up at Paul Frank with Marilyn emblazoned in black and white on fuchsia. Violet had been feeling flush that day when she saw on Apple Pay that Sigsworth had deposited a lump sum in her account.
She had forgotten she was wearing it. “Good call,” she laughed. “Cheers.”
The alcohol went straight to her head.
Ingrid handed her an agua mineral con gaz. “Pace yourself, lady. México is not a good place to get drunk unless you’re with friends.”
“Aren’t we friends?” Violet asked, swaying on the bar stool.
“I am but not everyone is. México is a dangerous place, you know. Don’t you watch the news?”
“Ninety-eight per cent of us will die at some point in our lives,” said Violet with a grin.
“Let me take you to my favourite place in the city,” said Ingrid, linking arms.
The nocturnal chill at the outdoor screen of the Cineteca Nacional woke Violet up and the mournful music of a bolero made her burst into tears.
“A Buñuel movie never made me cry, maybe you are cold,” said Ingrid, putting her pashmina over Violet’s shoulders. She hailed a cab and dropped Violet off back at the Bamer. “Take care of yourself, won’t you,” she murmured and vanished in a whir of blue metal.
Violet stood stock still on the sidewalk. She had no idea what had just happened.
She walked unsteadily into the foyer and stared at the elevator for five minutes. She returned to her room where she nodded off with an old mystery novel in her hand. Wolf Woman Strikes. She had seen Alfred Hitchcock reading it on his old TV show.
The following morning she gawped open-mouthed at her blurred reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the shower she noticed a mark on her wrist that hadn’t been there before. It was a blood spot blooming into a bruise. Her veins stretched out like spidery filaments from a deep and dark incision. She sniffed from an empty bottle of her mother’s favourite tuberose perfume for comfort.
It took two hours to parse coverage of a Fortune 500 company’s move into Big Tech. She forwarded her conclusions to her team lead and replaced her laptop on the chiffonier in the corner. After tapas and a Mexican Coca Cola made with cane sugar in the hotel bar to stimulate her into some kind of action, she ventured outside where a street vendor tried to tempt her with turtle eggs. She blinked up at the strange purple and red skies. It was time to finally meet PK.
Better a coffee shop than a bar, although the first place he had suggested was the Encrucijada Verazruzana on Bucareli which made her think of Burt Lancaster and a western nobody ever seemed to have seen. So she took a pesero to Calle Horacio and made her way on foot around the corner to the Baudelaire Cafe and there he was, framed in the window, drinking from a mug. PK Malone. An Argentine living in Mexico City. A veterinary student in Puerto Rico in the winter months. She squinted at the app to check he was like his photograph. Mussed dark blond hair, deep tan, tighty whitey teeshirt. Typing on his iPad.
He stood up confidently to greet her as she approached him. He seemed pleased to see her.
They hugged awkwardly and then laughed. She put her backpack on one wrought-iron chair as he dragged out another for her to sit down. It scraped on the tiled floor. There was an orchid wrapped in pink ribbon in a glass box. He handed it to her. She thought she must have been blushing but how could he tell, she wondered. At least she had remembered to trim her heavy fringe with the nail scissors she had smuggled in her toiletries. Very Louise Brooks.
“I’ve wanted to come here since I saw Spectre,” said Violet.
“James Bond does Dia de los Muertes,” said PK. “You’re only six months early but there are fiestas all the time.”
“It has that Orson Welles tracking shot,” said Violet, twisting the flower in her fingers.
“Those gringos like to move a camera once they hit the Mexican border,” said PK.
“I’m not just here for movies, I’m searching for B. Traven,” she said laughing. She relaxed.
“I think you’ll find him in one of the city’s cemeteries,” said PK. “In fact I know exactly where he’s buried. It’s not too far from here, in the Colonia Cuauhtémoc. We could go on a pilgrimage if you like.”
For no reason she could fathom, Violet shuddered. He was handsome. Plausible. Helpful. Like a tour guide. Sigsworth’s words rattled in her mind. What do you know about this guy?
“Maybe one day,” said Violet. “I’m just getting used to being here. I’d love to see the pyramids at Teotihuacán.”
“No problem whatsoever,” he said cheerfully. He pushed over his plate of fibrous beef barbacoa. “Try some. It’s delicious. It’s one of the best dishes they do here.”
“If you like,” she responded shyly. She didn’t want to be rude.
She ordered a strawberry Lulú. The hibiscus flavour made her ill. What she wouldn’t give for pizza. Popcorn shrimp. Cinnamon gum.
PK took her outside. She vomited on the pavement. “Come on, we’ll get you help,” he insisted and a black car pulled up.
“Let me tell you about the Tijuana donkey show,” said PK.
Violet was leaning on his shoulder in the back seat. “Has that anything to do with the Singapore grip?” she slurred.
He laughed grimly. “I see you’re a student of Wallis Simpson.”
They stopped at a Fifties cinder block building that used to be a Floridian-style mid-century hotel but now offered discreet space for dubious enterprises. He helped her up one flight of stairs into what appeared to be a doctor’s office.
A bespectacled white-haired man assisted PK strapping Violet to a reclining seat. He shot her up with a pre-operative concoction.
“I can’t feel my face,” Violet said. Her teeth were in the way of her thick tongue.
Is it safe? It was Laurence Olivier peering as her eyelids were prised apart with needles. But that made her Dustin Hoffman. Or Malcolm McDowell.
“She’s a perfect match,” he told PK. “You hit the genetic jackpot. The van will be along presently.”
“Smart too,” said PK.
“It’s not brain surgery,” said the man.
She came to behind a grille she could barely distinguish through a silk blindfold. She could hear men muttering in English and Spanish and heard them say the Peruvian Ambassador’s daughter and transplant and what sounded like organza.
She caught a whiff of chemicals. Her nose was encrusted with dried mucus and clots making breathing difficult. Her hands were tied and her ankles were taped together. She had no idea where she was. She was being driven in a blacked out van through Chapultepec Park and Polanco and the vehicle finally parked at a concrete storage facility.
She was dragged through a corrugated door into a vast space with strong lighting that penetrated the fabric over her eyes. The duct tape on her mouth made speaking impossible. She was placed onto a cold steel surface. Her hands were briefly freed but immediately put in shackles.
There was noise. A lot of chatter. The screams of machinery.
An epidural injection was roughly administered. Her abdomen was opened with knives. Her throat was parched. She wanted water. She shuddered.
It was hot and stuffy and she was suffocating on her own bodily fluids and in that part of her brain that still functioned she locked herself into the darkest recess of the smallest compartment in her mind and focussed on things that were opposite, a habit she had developed as a child when things got tricky. Cold showers. Sea breezes. The fresh minty taste of Crest toothpaste. Daisy-shaped ice cubes in her drinks. A fudgesicle. The shoreline at Newport Beach. Night surfing. Waves crashing under the pier. Her little home on the flowered street. Balboa Island. Joan Bennett would know what to do, she thought. She wouldn’t have done this. She wouldn’t have come here. Why couldn’t she just have set up her own frozen banana stand?
Her kidneys were removed. Then her liver. Organ extravaganza. The chainsaw screeched. Scarlet ribbons of blood seeped and burbled onto the butcher’s slab and her shredded flesh sighed from its hollowed-out corpse.
She was being deleted. In that infinitesimally brief moment before the razor sliced her eyeball’s contracted pupil and her brain was skewered she could remember Carl Sagan’s words, We are all made of star stuff. She exhaled for the last time.
Violet had looked for love and found the one man who wanted her for her body.
The end when it came was quick.
A few hours later an earthquake nineteen miles off San Miguel rippled across the earth and shook Mexico City to the core. While Violet was being redistributed the repository where her corrupted shell lay rocked and swayed and collapsed into dust in just another day of the dead.
© Elaine Lennon 2022