For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
As a horny, homely teenager I often daydreamed of being a rock groupie, pinballing between Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant, with a quick stop at Mick Jagger, dressed in cute hippie clothes, my eyeglasses magically vanishing from off my face at the same time I grew three inches in height and four in bust line.
But I had never come face-to-face (or face to any other body part) with a celebrity. Growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, our local VIPs included Mr. Toot, the host of afternoon cartoons; Dottie Becker, the bubble headed brunette with the rigid smile, the doyen of the one-to-three TV slot (the second Dottie’s unhinged grin appeared on our TV, my mother marched over to click it off, believing that Dottie had unfairly beaten her out in the audition); Ready Kilowatt, the electric company’s mascot; and Joe Huie, the eponym and ever-present owner of Duluth’s only 24-hour restaurant.
Now I was with a rock asteroid, the “International Singing Sensation” Fito Giron, who had plucked me from out of the flock of Spring Break coeds, locked eyes with me during his romantic rendition of “Wooly Bully,” and introduced me to disco dancing and then his bed. That night with Fito was the start of my marvelous, award-winning Spring Break in Acapulco, a fantasy “Where the Hombres Are.”
The next afternoon, I disentangled myself from the silk sheets, stumbled into the tropical sun, found a cab, and went to the Holiday in Hell Inn to collect my travel partner Mindy. Mindy and I headed back to the El Presidente pool, where we were greeted like visiting royalty by the staff. Fito and Jorge did not show up that day. In fact we never saw them by the pool again. Just as I started to panic—had I been dumped after a single night?—and steeled myself for a conversation with a beer-chugging Aggie, a waiter delivered a message with my coconut: Mindy and I were to meet Fito and Jorge for dinner at Carlos’N Charlie’s, the restaurant equivalent of Armando’s.
Carlos’N Charlie’s was what Pracna might have become if it had better food, real plates, and prettier customers who were not bundled up in turtlenecks and sweaters. The second story restaurant perched above the bustling main drag was bathed in flattering light, with more flattery coming from the handsome and obliging waiters and bartenders.
Carlos’N Charlie’s became our regular spot, whether Fito was there to pick up the check or not. Every night, the charming and smiling maître d’ whisked Mindy and me inside and led us to one of the coveted balcony tables overlooking the crowd milling about on the street, waiting and waiting to get in. If Fito did show up to dine with us, he always ordered oysters, which were served in a dozen different ways, from my favorite, Rockefeller, tucked under blankets of bread crumbs and béchamel and spinach, to the way Fito liked them, still quivering on the half shell.
These were my first raw oysters, as I had a serious grudge against them: on my hands, under the still visible white marks from flint knapping disasters, were faint scars from amateur oyster-shucking at my first restaurant job. Fito held the shell, rough on the bottom, pearly smooth on top, up to my lips like a raw, salty kiss, and gently slid the oyster into my mouth as if it were his tongue. Each oyster was followed by a real kiss and a silent promise to prove the purported potency of oysters later that night.
After dinner, we crossed the street to the El Presidente to watch Fito gyrate his hips, sweat, Wooly Bully, and thrill the females in the audience. I never tired of his cheesy, Latin Tom Jones act, I guess all groupies must enjoy seeing the same damn show over and over. Then it was into the Mercedes and off to Armando’s, for hours of vodka, champagne, and dancing as foreplay. During the day I tried to catch up on my sleep on a lounge chair by the El Presidente pool, relying on Mindy to chase away drunken college boys.
Guys kept trying to pick us up at the pool or Carlos’N Charlie’s, but I was with the handsomest man in Acapulco. I had no desire to hang out with a sun-burned economics major from Purdue or an aspiring journalist from Northwestern. I urged Mindy to get some Spring Break action herself; as sweet and accommodating as Jorge was, in the orbit of Fito’s brilliant sun he was a dull little moon and was not about to get lucky with Mindy. Mindy assured me again and again that she was having a great time at the El Presidente pool and cocktail lounge and at Armando’s. She was fine playing Ethel Mertz but she did not need a Fred around.
Towards the end of our Spring Break week, Mindy and I were on our usual pool side lounges, she sipping a cocktail and me trying to ignore the blaring music and glaring sun and catch a short nap, when a short, bald, whiskey-colored man in a black Speedo popped up like Rumpelstiltskin. We were bored of toying with the male Spring Breakers and I was running on too little sleep to shoo anyone away, so we ended up listening to this dark imp’s spiel.
Baldy was American, he was semi-amusing, and he said he was rich. Would we like to see his house, have a swim, maybe stay for dinner? Mindy and I had a quick whispered confab. We agreed that it would be fun to see something else in Acapulco besides the El Presidente and Armando’s, and if the old codger did turn out to be a creep the two of us could easily take him. And we wouldn’t have to hear “Hey, where do you go to school?¨ or “Didn’t I see you girls dancing at Le Dome (heavens no!) last night?” one more time that afternoon. Mindy and I were the Spring Break golden girls, nothing bad could happen to us. A visit to Baldy’s would be one more fabulous adventure.
Baldy did have an incredible house, cantilevered over the ocean on the rocky cliffs at the far side of Acapulco, where you could safely swim in the ocean without worrying about garbage floating by or the sharks that followed the garbage. His house had a huge picture window angled so that all you could see was blue sea and sky. Despite the streaming sunlight outside, the inside of the house was dark and gloomy, with heavy mission furniture and ugly, shadowy, oversized paintings in gilded frames on every wall. Baldy had actual servants, which I thought existed only in books or royal palaces. One of them, a short silent woman, brought us chicken sandwiches and icy Coronas as we sat on the patio looking out to sea, before vanishing back into the dark interior.
After lunch, Baldy, who had stayed in his black Speedo the whole time, encouraged Mindy and me to change into our bikinis and take a swim. There was no pool or sandy beach. Hammered into the rock cliff was a death-defying red metal ladder that descended thirty feet from the patio to a sea-level cement platform. The ladder looked almost as dangerous as going off with a strange man in a foreign country, but Mindy and I managed to make our rickety way down to the sea. The water was calm and so clear it was like looking through blue tinted glass; we could see silvery fish darting about the sandy bottom. We leapt in; it was as if we were diving into an aquarium. We were splashing about in the water when Baldy completed his slow, ape-like descent down the ladder; he sat on the cement, dangling his feet in the ocean and licking his lips.
“Take off your swimsuits!” he shouted. Since I was well beyond my bad girl tipping point, off went my bikini top. Mindy quickly followed. We frolicked like mermaids, enjoying our very first swim in the warm Pacific Ocean, purposely not looking at Baldy, who stayed dry up on the platform, probably congratulating himself on finally getting what he dreamt of when he invested in an ocean front house in Acapulco.
To Baldy’s evident disappointment, Mindy and I put our bikini tops back on before pulling ourselves up on the platform to make final, second-to-the-last-day improvements on our tans. We didn’t have a chance of achieving a skin tone like Baldy’s (which had an unsettling resemblance to a well-worn loafer), but we had finally managed to shed our corpse-like Minnesota Winter White. Baldy slithered about as we basked, but he didn’t say or do anything overly disgusting besides drool all over himself. He eventually managed to sputter out “Are you staying for dinner?”
Mindy and I had eaten dinner at Carlos’N Charlie’s every night, and it had been delicious and fun and paid for by Fito most of the time. But we were getting close to the end of our Spring Break, and I was obsessed with what would happen next.
I hit the jackpot in Spring Break romances, out on the town and in bed every night with the handsomest man I had ever seen. I was ecstatic with my fairy tale adventure, but inside I held on to a hard nugget of truth: in Fito’s world I was a pretty butterfly, there for him to enjoy for a few days and then gone forever. The day I flew home to Minneapolis, Fito would be back at the El Presidente pool, picking out another pretty blonde to admire him from her front row table at his show and dance with at Armando’s, a new girl to feed oysters to. And then another the next week.
I had no illusions. I knew I meant about as much to Fito as an ice cream cone.
I was not in love, I never thought of myself as Fito’s girlfriend. He was good-looking, drove a fancy car, was a big fish in Acapulco, and that was more than enough. We never had a conversation that went beyond “Would you like another drink?” or “Roll over.” He was singing on stage, we were dancing at Armando’s, or we were in bed. I had no idea of who was inside that tan, handsome veneer, if he had brothers or sisters, where he came from—all I knew about Fito was that he like oysters, drank champagne or vodka on the rocks, and idolized Sam the Sham.
What I did know with absolute certainty was that I was rapidly approaching my expiration date. Late one night as we were leaving Armando’s, another blonde, this one a real Scandinavian, an adorable dead ringer for Elke Sommer in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! rushed up to Fito in tears, pounded on his chest with her pretty fists, and wept “Por que, Fito, por que?” Fito yanked himself away from her and responded with a burst of angry Spanish that Miss Sweden seemed to grasp, because she shot back a tearful response in rapid-fire Spanish. I only understood a few words of what she was saying: “Claro, mi amor, pero…” but the whole scene and back story was uncomfortably clear. Miss Sweden was yesterday’s girl. I grabbed Mindy and dashed for the bathroom, where we stayed as long as possible, applying layers of mascara, while the bored ladies room attendant counted up her tips and gave us the stink-eye to get out. When we finally emerged Miss Sweden was gone, Fito was brushing off the sleeves of his shirt and looking annoyed, and Jorge was telling us the car was ready. If I had needed a wake up call, this would have been it, a cautionary tale that prettier girls than me had been tossed to the wayside by Fito.
That night I lay next to a snoring Fito and swore that I would never pull a scene like that. But the memory of that poor girl ate away at me; I was obsessed with the very real possibility that in one of the two nights we had left Fito would stroll into Carlos’N Charlie’s with his arm around a new blonde, leaving me to gnaw on my spare ribs in humiliation. The Spring Break movie in my head did not end with me being publicly jilted. I was determined not to let that happen.
I needed an exit strategy and Baldy’s dinner invitation helped me make one. I decided to let Fito wonder why I wasn’t at his show or at Carlos’N Charlie’s that night. After dinner, Mindy and I would go to Armando’s by ourselves. If Fito were there with a new girl, Mindy and I could dance together, lost in the pounding music, the throngs of people, and the dazzling disco lights. Other men would quickly find us, ask us to dance, and buy us drinks. Thanks for the memories, Fito.
How could I have been so cold-blooded and calculating about the end of a romantic fling? How did I, a 20-year-old from small town Duluth, grasp the social nuances of such an exotic place, and why the hell did I care? I didn’t know the difference between a Studebaker and a Mercedes. I had never seen valet parking or a woman stationed in a ladies’ room in front of a counter full of toiletries, handing you a towel and waiting for a dollar in return.
I will be eternally grateful to Mindy for being not just a good friend but also the perfect travel partner. She was fine with us having dinner at Baldy’s. After we said yes, we’d stay, Baldy made his precarious way up the ladder to give his staff instructions for dinner. Mindy and I spent the rest of the afternoon sunning and swimming, and refining our plans for that evening.
Baldy’s dining room was even darker than the rest of the house, the only light the flickering flames from two immense candelabras that would not have looked out of place in a Dracula movie. Baldy almost vanished into the paneled background, his skin the same shade as the wood. There were also surprise guests. Baldy leaned into the candlelight to introduce us to his friends, two older Mexican men who were several degrees creepier than Baldy, and who were joining us for dinner.
This is one of the few meals I have had that I cannot recall a single thing I ate. Baldy’s amigos spoke just enough English to ask Mindy and me leering questions about our boyfriends, our underwear, and what were thought of Mexican men. When necessary, Baldy translated for them, looking like a successful hunter who has bagged two fat quail and is showing them off to his buddies. As the small silent maid glided around the table, refilling our wine glasses for the fourth time, Mindy and I exchanged the classic girlfriend Let’s Get Out of Here Look: brows raised as high as possible, eyeballs darting to one side. When Baldy chirped “Dessert?” Mindy and I, not knowing if we were going to eat dessert or be it, simultaneously hopped up as if electrified, grabbed our bags, and headed for the door, looking over our shoulders to thank Baldy, express our pleasure at meeting his two awful friends, and protest that we needed to be someplace else immediately.
Mindy and I ran down the hill in the dark; I didn’t look back, fearful that what I would see would be Baldy and friends chasing us down, three elderly zombies, arms outstretched, followed by one of his servants carrying a net. As we dashed down the cobbled street I could hear the men yelling at Mindy and me to come back, when a cab miraculously appeared. We had escaped that weird dungeon disguised as a beach house unharmed.
It was too early to make an appearance at Armando’s. After I got my breath back from running, hyperventilating with fear, and the hysterical laughter that followed, I came up with a new plan. We still had time to catch Fito’s show. If Fito had tired of me, our names would have dropped off the guest list. The maître d’ would shake his head, and I could quietly slip away. We would skip Armando’s and venture out to one of the B-list discos or even head back to our crap hotel for a full night’s sleep. Our Spring Break was almost over anyway; we had only one more day.
But on our second-to-last night in Acapulco, when Mindy and I presented ourselves at the maître d’s stand, we were given our usual warm greeting and ushered down to the front row to watch Fito’s show yet again (“Wooly Boooley! Wooly Boooley! Wooly Boooley!”).
Later, at Armando’s, Fito hollered in my ear, “I didn’t see you at Carlos’N Charlie’s.” I thought quick and yelled back that Mindy and I had eaten at Blackbeard’s, an expensive steak house across from Carlo’N Charlie’s, but his attention had already turned from me to instructing the waiter where to place the ice bucket.