One day, my college roommate Mike and I passed a pet store in downtown Boston and decided that what our shared dorm room at Boston University’s Myles Standish Hall needed was a hamster. Like many decisions I was making in my late teens, this one was ill-advised.
I named the hamster Freud, which was apropos: Freud (the man, not the hamster) and I had a lot in common—he was Jewish, and so was I. He had a beard and I was trying to grow one. And we were both fascinated by sex.
Freud (the hamster, not the man) lasted about two weeks. As hamsters go, he wasn’t a particularly good one. He constantly escaped from whatever makeshift dwelling we had provided him, and he did actual damage—specifically, he chewed up the corners of my fake book that had been stored in the small guitar amplifier I kept stored in a corner. That was the last straw, and he was unceremoniously returned to the pet store. (Let’s just say that’s what happened to him; I really don’t remember. Regardless, he was gone.)
As a side note, I might add that my younger sister, Eve, had a hamster named Herman for many years. Herman never bit the hand that fed him, nor did he chew up corners of fake books or any other kind of book. When he finally died of a tumor, my sister’s friendly veterinarian offered to perform an autopsy at no charge.
“Doctor,” Eve told the vet, “I’m sorry, but you can’t do an autopsy on Herman—he’s Jewish.” Maybe all hamsters are Jewish. Only God knows. But I digress.
The reason I bring up Freud is that he unexpectedly showed up at a quinceañera that Sharon and I attended at a small town in Mexico. (Freud the man, not the hamster, although both had been dead for decades.)
Our soon-to-be compadres, Miguel and Guadalupe, were celebrating the quinceañera of their daughter, Amilania, and we happened to be visiting Mexico that very week where they live in Zihuatanejo. So we were invited.
After the long drive to Tenexpa, the small pueblo where the event was to be held, we spent a short time in a room in the comfortable home where we were being put up for the night, and dressed. To Sharon’s surprise, two or three young women arrived at one point to help her with her hair. After fussing and helping, the teenagers got anxious, saying, “La misa! La misa!” and we realized it was time for the obligatory Mass, which we attended. It was a very serious service.
Afterwards, the many guests settled themselves outside in the town square at pre-assigned picnic tables.
Our hosts had thoughtfully seated us at a table that included several English speakers. One of these guests, whom we had previously met, was Ildefonso.
Ilde, as he was familiarly known, was an interesting character. He was the adult son of an older couple, Gilberto and Isabel, who were compadres of our hosts, Miguel and Guadalupe, who had watched Ilde grow up to be a charming, ever-smiling, charismatic, and somewhat untrustworthy rogue.
For example, we once bumped into Ilde early in the morning as we were walking to a café for breakfast. In the perfect English he had learned somewhere in the States, he greeted us with genuine cordiality. He was apparently returning home, somewhat inebriated, after a night of carousing. Conspicuous by her absence was his wife, whom I will soon describe.
Another time, at a group dinner, he came over to chat with Sharon and myself and, with his winning smile, suggested that he could arrange for us to earn $10,000 if, when we returned to the United States from our vacation, we would simply deliver a package to one of his friends. Sharon viewed this offer without interest or humor and informed him that she was a U.S. Federal employee and it was out of the question. (Me, I saw winged dollars flying out a window.)
Although we had met Ilde’s wife briefly (we referred to her as la esposa de Ilde, but I’m sure she had her own name), we now found ourselves at the quinceañera seated across from her at our picnic table.
I’ll admit she intrigued me. Although not a psychoanalyst myself, it didn’t take much to see that she was a troubled woman. Thin to the point of anorexia, she never smiled nor emoted in any real way. She looked around the room furtively, but never made eye contact. She had very dark hair and dark eyes, and one might wonder what attraction she held for the spirited Ilde. That mystery was solved when Guadalupe made a reference to their young child who was conceived months before their marriage (which was certainly the Mexican equivalent of a “shotgun wedding”).
As was typical at such festive events, the quinceañera featured wonderful food and drinks. Tortillas filled with beef, chilis, and salsa, wrapped in aluminum foil, were being served while two live bands alternated their presentations of pop Mexican standards.
Cerveza, Mexican sodas, and other drinks were available, bottles of El Presidente (the brandy of choice) were present at each table, and it seemed that every adult male (other than myself) was smoking a Cuban cigar.
It was a great party!
But as I chatted in bad Spanish (and better English) to several of my table companions, I could not ignore the ghostly presence of Ilde’s wife. Although she sat across the table from me, in a way she was not there. (The word for “ghost” in Spanish is fantasma. That’s what she was.) I realized I may have been the only person who was even aware of her.
At some point her husband, Ilde, stood and left to greet friends elsewhere. His half-smoked cigar remained in a tin ashtray, and I watched his wife staring at it. She did not take her eyes off the cigar for almost a minute.
Unaware that I was observing her, she picked up the remnants of an aluminum foil food wrapper and slowly fashioned it into a ball. She held it in her left hand while she carefully reached for the still-smoldering cigar. I watched intently as her gaze alternated between the two objects held in her hands.
Then my mind was jolted as she almost violently jammed the cigar into the ball of foil, creating a discernible indentation. I could feel my heart beating as she repeatedly thrust the cigar into the orifice she had created. And she didn’t stop. I leaned over and whispered in Sharon’s ear, “Don’t look too quickly, but can you see what the wife of Ilde is doing?” Sharon glanced over and watched this bizarre act for a few seconds. Then we looked at each other in amazement. My thought then—as it is now—is that you can go through your whole life and never observe such blatant Freudian behavior.
Eventually, she put both objects back down on the table and refocused her gaze into the distance as the festivities of the quinceañera continued around us.
At the time I remember thinking about a statement often attributed to Freud:
“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Then again, sometimes it’s not.
A year later, Sharon and I were back in Zihuatanejo to visit Miguel and Guadalupe. The four of us were sitting at lunch in an open-air café, chatting about this and that. The subject of the previous year’s quinceañera came up and we asked how everyone was doing. We were happy to be together and they tolerated my bad Spanish.
All was well until I asked, “¿Cómo está la esposa de Ilde?”
It was a loaded question and I knew it would be. Ilde’s wife was the one person that everyone pretended did not exist—she was a fantasma, not a real person. Asking how she was, or even bringing her into an otherwise normal conversation, probably shocked them.
“¿Por qué preguntas?” (“Why do you ask?”), Guadalupe inquired with barely-disguised trepidation. Miguel, too, was obviously curious.
“Because I find her an incredibly fascinating character,” I responded in my best Spanish.
They looked at each other with a glance common to people who have been married a long time, regardless of their nationality.
“¿Porqué?” They wanted to know why an educated American would not only remember but even be interested in this person who was peripheral—almost invisible—in their community.
“Do you remember,” I asked after a long pause, “that she and Ilde were sitting at the same table with Sharon and me at the quinceañera?”
Yes, they remembered. They’d seated us with Ilde because he spoke English.
“During the evening I observed some very unusual behavior.”
“Tell us, please.”
Sharon glanced at me with another one of those looks that married people share and whispered, somewhat incredulously, “You are not going to try to tell them about that, are you?”
I thought for a second and decided. “Yes, I am.”
In my best Spanish I told my friends, “Before I explain, I need to know some words in Spanish.”
Miguel nodded yes. I took out a pen and wrote on a napkin as he gave me the translations:
train: tren (I already knew that one)
dream: sueño (I knew this one, too)
(You will note that most of these words are cognates. Isn’t Spanish fun?)
“Hace aproximadamente cien años, hay un médico llamado Sigmund Freud. Su especialidad eran los problemas psicológicos, sobre todo en el sexo …”
Something like that, but I think you get the picture.
I continued to explain Freud’s theories of symbolism, and that when these symbols appear, particularly in a person’s dreams, they are very often reminiscent of eroticism and unrequited desires. Thus, the image of a train entering a tunnel is a perfect example of the sexual act. My friends were particularly attentive. I wondered if their contemporaries spoke openly about sex, and it was interesting to me to be introducing these concepts to adults who were certainly hearing them for the first time. Sharon, on the other hand, was totally bored.
Now it was time to explain what we witnessed at the quinceañera. I demonstrated what la esposa de Ilde did, using a wad of paper napkins and my pen, each symbolic of the ball of tin foil and the cigar. I knew that while Guadalupe and Miguel were not educated to the same degree as we were, they were both intelligent and quickly grasped the picture.
By the end of my narrative en español, my brain and I were exhausted. But I had succeeded in conveying an incident that had occurred at their daughter’s quinceañera, adding an unexpected layer to this common Mexican life-cycle event.
I wish that I could say this was the end of the story, but it’s not. A year or two later we returned to Zihuatanejo and received the tragic news that Ilde was dead. His parents were bereft and my friends saddened. But I was not terribly surprised. Through subtle questioning and listening, I heard several narratives surrounding his demise.
One, put forth by his parents, was that Ilde was working undercover for the police and was caught in the crossfire during a drug bust. He was, in effect, a hero.
A second had to do with Ilde attempting to rescue a woman during an armed robbery.
The third hinted that Ilde himself might have been involved with a drug deal gone bad. You can choose which story you prefer; I know which seemed to ring true to me.
When I inquired about Ilde’s wife and the baby, I was told that they went to live with her parents.
La esposa de Ilde—her image, behavior, and the tragic nature of her personal and mental health—still haunts me.
Yes. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes it’s not.