A few weeks ago, it happened. I had been anticipating it coming for some time; maybe it was the thing that sat low in my throat and stretched with tension when I got off the plane and started my year here. I ate in the company cafeteria for the first time. Most everyone, for better and for worse, holds and guards the fleshy underparts of their exoskeleton with ferocity. We see moments where this mitosis of feeling happens to someone else and our own shell cracks because the scene we behold is a mirror that we are not ready to look into yet; perhaps we never will be. For reasons unknown, in high school I could never bear to watch anyone emerge from the lunch line and look for a table in the cafeteria. The tray is warm from the food and the dishwasher, the weary traveler is ready to feed body and soul with the sub-par prix fixe and a half-hour of sociability, but there is no table at which to lite, no base, no seat to warm. The search is leveling; everyone’s eyes dart the same way, desperation comes at her own pace. Regardless of whether or not the journeyman before me was actually searching for a place to belong or simply taking a breather after emerging with his vittles, I always replaced his face with mine, feeling dread and embarrassment soak into my cheeks as I stood vicariously before a pulsing thrum of rejection.
I’ve leveled off since high school and no longer attach cataclysmic dread to public displays of social isolation; now when I witness One Who Stands Alone, I suck in air through my teeth and offer a silent prayer of thanks to the guardian saints of the cafeteria that I am safe and surrounded. Eventually, though, the spotlight finds us, every one. It had been a week and a half at work, and I was treading water—I use this phrase in a positive sense because not drowning in the ocean of cultural complexity is a unabashed victory for this güero. Introductory lunches had run their course, and I found myself suddenly alone in the office at 2:00 (Mexicans eat late; yes, I'm hungry everyday). Everyone else had apparently been spirited away to the comedor at ten-till. I pep-talked myself into following suit and finding new-but-familiar faces that would surely show pity on a journeyman. An image of me standing with a tray and a strange haircut in front of a cafeteria full of hecklers flitted in the back of my mind like a flame on a stove.
After two U-turns and two trips on the elevator, I was kindly escorted to the entrance of the comedor. Thirty pesos later and receipt in hand, I balked and tried to turn around, but there was no chance of ducking out without a promenade of failure in front of the whole venue. Just like hitchhiking (Who, me? No, I just love this part of the side of the road so I thought I’d pack a few things and take it all in. Oh, you want some company? Well, OK, I’ll get in, etc. etc.), one can’t hide the fact that one has no lunch companions in the cafeteria. You strut with the confidence of groupthink or Smeagol your way around the crannies of the dining hall, making guttural noises and pointing at empty seats with wild, desperate eyes. At least that’s what I felt I was doing in the real-time movie-musical version of my life. The soundtrack was something tribal, mostly jungle drums.
Like all good Americans, I cut in line out of ignorance and then had to steal back a few spots, stuttering apologies while filing in again. In the U.S, 30 pesos will get you a Milky Way and a coke; here, I watched as my fellow patrons piled soup, salad, main course, bread, dessert and drink onto an ingeniously trapezoidal tray. I mimicked and managed to cross the finish line with only one U-turn (for silverware) to my name. Relief.
And then the atomic elbow: I was so excited to have food that I failed to realize that I had stepped into, literally, the exact spot that my mind most feared. I was a searcher, a wanderer in, not above, the sea of fog. I tried to adopt a noble pose, casting my eyes far and wide for someone to hail me to their place. After a torturous 30 seconds (which in aimless cafeteria time is a few birthdays), two colleagues that I had never met somehow knew my name and waved me out of the hoi polloi and into their haven. Grace made me smile and greased my tongue; my Spanish was passable, even enjoyable at moments. When I doubt that the Lord loves me and cares for me like a father for his beloved child, I think back to slipping into the hard plastic dining chair, small but thankful.
I came to Mexico with a tray, with a story that no one knew, with a title that no one functionally cared about. I’ve put myself in the way of receiving care and welcome from others, and that’s about all I have had the capacity for. I feel sanded down, the veneer of all that I thought I had to offer replaced by a nervous smile and a thumb sheepishly pointed upward, asking for a ride. The frequency of these moments is more than coincidental, it’s thematic: a new situation, with all the familiar xs and ys removed, shows in extreme, sometimes grotesque form, what always is and has been. O’Connor never went to Mexico, as far as I know, but the road between D.F. and Milledgeville, Georgia is getting shorter all the time.