For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
Mindy and I had our last day by the lovely El Presidente pool, drank our last coco loco cocktails, and our Spring Break was over. It was our final night in Acapulco. Part of me just wanted to spend it in our hotel room, reading one of the ponderous textbooks that I had stupidly brought along till I fell asleep in a bed by myself. I had been given a week straight out of a cheap romance novel, a Spring Break that would have taken the gold in the Spring Break Olympics; I could rest on my laurels.
But it was Mindy’s last night too, and she had been such a good sport and good friend. If I had to go down in flames, getting dumped in public by my Acapulco boyfriend, at least we could eat spareribs and drink margaritas at Carlos’N Charlie’s one last time. I happily agreed to skip Fito’s lounge act. I don’t know if even the most devoted groupie could have endured hearing him sing “Little Red Riding Hood” one more time. And one way or the other, our fling, our romance, was over.
Mindy and I put on our cutest outfits, the ones we had been saving for our last night, and headed out. Thanks to our day on Baldy’s swimming platform, I had achieved as perfect a tan as a Minnesota girl could. My skin had browned to the exact shade of a Parker House roll and my hair had sun-kissed highlights no beauty shop or bottle of Sun-In could replicate.
No longer rubes, Mindy and I presented ourselves at the door of Carlos’N Charlie’s and were whisked inside, ignoring the glowers from the tourists waiting in line. The bartenders and waiters smiled and waved as Mindy and I were led to a balcony table that had a full view of the dining room and bar, and more importantly, where everyone in the restaurant could see us. I assumed that our VIP treatment meant that Fito was not canoodling with another blonde at the bar, but I carefully scanned the room anyway.
Fito was not there, but looking deeply and directly at me was another gorgeous, perfectly tanned Latin male in a blindingly white shirt, a man who made Fito look like a mutt. Years later, when I first saw Andy Garcia in a movie, I was convinced for a moment that he was the guy from the bar, the guy who had me in his sights and was smiling a very sexy half smile.
The next second, he was at our table. “Hello gorgeous ladies. May I buy you a drink?” Once again, Mindy got thrown under the bus, as Javier, as he introduced himself, was flying solo and was there for the blonde. My prayers had been answered.
Javier had shiny black hair, combed straight back from a widow’s peak, that gave him a touch of the mysterious. He had those deep-set eyes I cannot resist, eyes that were hooded under thick brows and thicker lashes, and perfect white teeth that out-gleamed his shirt. And he had a certain something special about him that even Fito the Fabulous lacked; I later realized that Javier’s shimmering aura came from being the heir to a large Mexican fortune.
This will work, I was thinking, here’s my out. I can’t be dumped by Fito if I am with another guy.
“Where are you from?” I twinkled. Javier lived in California and was a ski instructor. People skied in California? I had never heard of Mammoth. In Minnesota, a fancy ski area was one with a chairlift, and the only instructors were ski team girls teaching little kids the snowplow. I tried to make skiing small talk while imagining how Javier would look on a ski slope, but the idea that kept popping up in my mind was how you can make candy by dribbling hot maple syrup on freshly fallen snow.
Javier was speaking lower and lower, his face getting closer and closer to mine. Mindy spotted Jorge at the bar and grabbed her drink to go say goodbye. Javier exhaled in my ear, “Where are you going after dinner?”
I told him I didn’t know and confessed that it was my last night in Acapulco, which spurred Javier to move in for the kill. I let him kiss me, slitted my eyes, and watched Fito walk into the restaurant. As Javier pressed me back against the booth, Fito looked my way and buckled in astonishment. He turned and headed towards Jorge and Mindy at the bar.
I had won at this game, even though I would have been hard pressed to explain the rules, and I wasn’t sure what the prize was, outside of not ending up like Miss Sweden, brushed away like a piece of lint.
Mindy spent her last night of Spring Break at Armando’s, listening to Jorge make his final pitch to get her to sleep with him and watching Fito sulk. I spent my last night with the skiing Andy Garcia. We ended up in his room at—where else—the El Presidente hotel.
A few minutes after we had slipped into his bed, with very unfortunate timing there was a pounding on the door, a pounding that did not cease despite Javier yelling “Vete!” followed by what had to have been some extreme Spanish curse words. Then we heard a key turn in the lock and the door opened. It was the El Presidente’s house detective, who accused me of being a hooker and threatened to have Javier kicked out if I didn’t leave immediately. The detective stepped out of the room and lit a cigarette, my cue for how long I had to get out of there. I dressed and kissed Javier goodbye forever.
“Don’t you come back,” hissed the house dick and grabbed my elbow in a way that showed me he meant business and left a bruise for a week. I was escorted out of the El Presidente to do the midnight walk of shame back to my own crap hotel where I packed my pink Samsonite, making sure to shake all the roaches out of my bikinis and gauzy dresses and miniskirts. The next morning Mindy and I were on a plane home to Minneapolis.
After a week of sunshine, poolside lounging, and swanky, glittering discos, coming back to snowy, sleety Minneapolis in March was like waking from a wonderful dream. No place like home my foot. If I were Dorothy I would have been banging my head against the wall trying to get back to the Emerald City of Oz.
Always the good little hamster, I climbed back on my treadmill, going to school, going to my waitressing job. The grey days melded into each other. I dutifully trudged through the chest-high snowdrifts to my spring semester classes, where I tried to concentrate, to banish the Technicolor memories of—could it only have been the week before?
After classes, I waited in the cold for a bus to take me to work, the pale sun setting behind the Mississippi River, shivering and sniffling and hoping I wouldn’t be too late. I leapt off the bus at my stop, ran down the steep, slippery, snow-packed hill, and threw open the back door of Pracna that led to the staff room. Amid the fug of cigarette smoke and Jovan’s Musk, I stripped off my fifty layers of winter wear, put on my green apron and my most charming, obliging smile, and went out to greet my first table and run my feet off for the next six hours.
I was not alone in my unhappiness. Patti’s week in Florida with Eduardo’s family had not gone well: la familia was too busy fussing over their darling hijo to even pretend to notice the red-haired gringa he brought along. No one had said two words to Patti, not even Eduardo as his mother continuously spooned his favorite Cuban food into his mouth as if he were a very large toddler. When the maid showed Patti to the pool house, where she would be sleeping alone for the week, Eduardo just shrugged and went back to his pernil.
At work Patti slammed around the paper plates, cursed at the cooks, and chain smoked in the staff room. She radiated anger. She wasn’t speaking to Eduardo, waiting for him to apologize or even better, propose. Since Eduardo and his car were no longer around to ferry us home, Patti, Mindy and I shared cabs in uncomfortable silence after work. And without Eduardo’s warm, inviting, pot-filled apartment to go to, every night I ended up back in my own place, where the thermostat struggled to hit sixty degrees. My friendship with my roommate Liz had already turned frosty; I had been too caught up with work and my new friends. I was tired, lonely, and cold.
Just when the rest of the civilized world was welcoming the first robin and crocus, Minneapolis was hit with a furious blizzard and temperatures in the single digits. In those days in Minnesota, there were no weather-related closings. Even elementary schools sent out their snow-tired yellow buses to pick up frozen, ice-covered lumps waiting on corners. Crossing the campus to my eight o’clock class, I felt like Robert Scott at the South Pole. It seemed that no matter what direction I walked, I was heading into the wind, a wind that threw sharp-edged, blinding sleet into my eyes and the bridge of my nose, the only parts of my body that were exposed to the elements. The gales blasted snow down the tops of my boots, where it melted into ice water. By the time I got to Pracna, I had to take a few minutes to rub life back into my pink and numb feet before gingerly easing them into my work shoes—minutes that were clocked under the stink eye of my manager.
In the restaurant I was greeted by a shocking sight: the dining room held only a handful of couples, thawing out with bourbon or rye. When I went to the bar to fetch drinks, a row of empty bar stools stretched out before me. The hostess slumped over her stand, waiting for someone to show up. The jukebox blared out “Crocodile Rock” to an empty room.
That blizzard was the last straw for normally hardy, weather-resistant Minnesotans, people who enjoy tobogganing and skiing in white-out conditions, who sit for hours on frozen lakes ice fishing. But now everyone in Minneapolis looked out the window, checked the thermometer, said, “Hell with it. I’m done with winter,” and hunkered down in front of the TV.
For most of our shift, Mindy, Patti and I huddled around the end of the bar, eating maraschino cherries and beer nuts and not talking. The bartenders stopped cutting limes and started smoking. It was as if we had all gone into hibernation.
The blizzard did not let up. I was no longer coming home with my pockets full of dollar bills. I sat in class, my mind bouncing from grey worries about money and how late the bus to work would be, to glorious snapshot memories of Mexico, memories so sharp and clear that I could almost feel the warmth of the sun on my face, smell the Coppertone, hear the echoing throb of “Push Push in the Bush.” I snapped to only when the other students got up to leave and looked down at my notebook, as blank as when I opened it an hour before, the pencil resting forlornly across the page.
I had glimpsed what life outside Minnesota could be like and wanted more of that, away from this endless winter. That night I slipped under the eighty blankets piled on my bed, and right before I shivered myself to sleep, I remembered what the smitten Jorge had said to Mindy: that if she wanted to stay in Acapulco, he could get her a job.
I made one last freezing, sleeting walk across campus to the bursar’s office where I officially dropped out of college and got my full tuition of $222 back. I had more than enough money to fly to Acapulco. I quit my job at Pracna and said goodbye to Mindy and Patti. With so few customers, everyone could use extra shifts, so no one minded my leaving on short—actually no—notice. Mindy hugged me and wished me luck and didn’t act as if I had lost my mind. If anyone understood the scrambled desires running through my brain, she did.
Liz was not so understanding about me leaving, and with good reason. She now had to either pay all the rent herself or find a new roommate for one semester, a semester that had already started. I was a jerk to leave her like that. I was out of my mind, worn out by winter and work and bedazzled with visions of discos and hot sunshine and handsome Latin men. I packed my pink Samsonite and flew out of the snow and cold, headed south again.
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.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
Mindy and I had escaped the Acapulco Hotel of Horrors, and our trespass into the fancy pool at the El Presidente had earned us dates for the night and unlimited free drinks. We spent the rest of the day checking our shoulders hourly for tan lines, sucking up cocktails, and shooing off accounting and agricultural majors from various Midwestern universities. After meeting Fito, the Mexican Adonis, and his sidekick Jorge, those seniors from Madison or Ann Arbor were about as appealing as dry white toast.
Back at our crap hotel, we rummaged through our clothes to find outfits that didn’t mark us as the Minnesota hicks we were. I had a filmy, patchwork tulip-skirt that swirled about my knees. I hoped the three-inch cork platform clogs, a $9.99 Bakers Shoes splurge, made my legs look less stump-like.
How could we know we didn’t need to bother? We had tight butts and perky braless breasts that pointed north. We were garbed in our youth, the gift everyone receives yet no one truly appreciates. Mindy and I were as appealing as puppies, our skin glowing, our eyes bright; we were joyful and eager for whatever life brought us. We could have worn burlap bags.
But self-confidence is a long game, and easier lost than won. Despite what the mirror reflected, despite the cute skirt and shoes, I still felt like a four-eyed geek with an unflattering haircut. Mindy would have none of this and dragged me out of our room. I got a bit of a lift from the cat calls, whistles, and leers that followed us as we made our escape through our hotel’s dingy yet hellish lobby. But as we approached the gleaming El Presidente, my steps slowed, and I felt as if I was walking out of a wonderful dream.
A lounge singer? A guest list? How did we even know those two guys were who they said they were? Or what if they forgot to put our names on the list, or met two cuter girls and crossed our names out in favor of theirs? I’m afraid I infected Mindy with my doubts. We were deep in discussion of a back up plan in case our little Spring Break bubble popped as we walked into the El Presidente. Smack in the middle of the lobby was a huge poster proclaiming the International Singing Sensation, Fito Giron, was appearing there, a poster that featured a sexy, pouting head shot of the man from the pool. Mindy said, “At least he told the truth about that.”
We were still nervous as we climbed the red-carpeted spiraling stairs to the second floor and peered into the cocktail lounge, where couples sat at tiny tables just large enough for two drinks and a candle, tables smashed together in a tightly packed circle around a crimson-curtained stage. It looked like a nightclub scene from something I had seen on Saturday Night at the Movies, White Christmas, or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
We stood at the entrance, staring like the two rubes we were trying not to be. The maître d’ rushed to greet us and confirmed that yes, Gay and Mindy were on the guest list. He snapped his fingers and pointed down at the stage, and two waiters rushed in with a table, chairs, and ice bucket, shoving everything into a minuscule spot right in front. The maître d’ escorted us down to our table where a waiter stood, ready to pop the champagne and fill our glasses. I decided to stop trying to figure out when everything would go wrong and enjoy myself. Mindy raised her eyebrows and glass at me and downed her champagne in one gulp. I sipped mine and learned that there is a difference between Champale and champagne.
The lights were dimmed, and Fito made his entrance. Fito had been very handsome in daylight by the pool. On stage, Fito shimmered like a minor god, dressed in a piratical white shirt and alarmingly tight black pants. The spotlight glinted off his white teeth, the gleam of his hair, the beads of sweat on his brow, and his gold jewelry.
One of Fito’s songs.
For an hour, Fito alternated between Spanish and American pop songs, while Mindy and I worked our way through our bottle of champagne and exchanged pop-eyed Can You Believe This looks. At one point, Fito stepped over to the side of the stage and removed his soaked shirt, to the audible gasps of the females in the audience, including me. Jorge was there to hand him a fresh shirt and cart the laundry away.
Fito took his sweeping bows to a standing ovation and then immediately came back on stage to encore with Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s big hit, which got everyone up shouting along to “Wooly Bully!” and twitching their behinds. After the last round of applause died down, Jorge showed up at our table and asked us to wait while Fito changed. The maître d’ opened a second bottle of champagne, which I decided was going to be my drink of choice from then on.
Half an hour of stilted small talk later, Fito appeared, having showered away the alarming amounts of sweat he had generated on stage. He was wearing his third white shirt of the night, all of which seemed to have a single button placed an inch above his navel. Fito was now ready to go dancing, and the only place he danced was at Armando’s.
This is when I learned that in every town there may be dozens of discos and clubs, but there is only one place to go. There was Studio 54, and then there was everyplace else. In Acapulco, the only disco one should be seen at was Armando’s, where we were headed.
Outside the El Presidente, a valet was waiting for us with Fito’s car, a big boat of a thing with seats that smelled really nice and a dashboard that appeared to be made of wood. I had never seen a car like that. “Is this a Studebaker?” I asked Fito as he peeled out into the Avenida Costera traffic. “What is a Studebaker? No, mi amor,” he said with a thrilling purr in his voice. “This is a Mercedes Benz.”
At the entrance to Armando’s, another valet stood ready to whisk the car away. In front of us snaked a long line of applicants for admission, a mix of well-dressed Mexicans and tourists who thought they were well-dressed. A solemn doorman was surf-casting with his eyes for pretty girls; on seeing us, he cracked out a smile, handshake, and manly hug for Fito and Jorge. In front of hundreds of envious eyes, the four of us were escorted into paradise, a paradise made even more thrilling by the electric touch of Fito’s arm about my waist.
In Minneapolis, Liz and I had once gone to Uncles Sam’s, a downtown club dimly lit by neon beer signs where I tried to dance to Edgar Winter but could only lurch about like Frankenstein himself because my feet were stuck so firmly to the beer-soaked floor. All around me, Minneapolis youth were gamely trying to dance, standing in one place and flailing their arms while sploshing more beer on the cement floor and on me. That nightclub experience did not prepare me for Armando’s.
Walking into Armando’s, I felt like Dorothy opening the door of her farmhouse and entering Oz, if Dorothy had been accompanied by Errol Flynn. When I think of the times in my life I was happiest, I’d like to say when my sons were born, or my wedding day. But that would be a lie. It was that night at Armando’s.
Disco, which had yet to boogie its way north to Minneapolis, pulsed around us like a living, breathing thing, commanding that we Push Push in the Bush, Rock the Boat, Get on the Love Train. Swirling colored lights illuminated the dance floor like a kaleidoscope, with glints from the huge disco ball falling like blessings on the hundreds of sexy, ecstatic dancers. Men were in Cuban guayaberas worn open halfway to their navels, or Qiana Huk-A-Poos, or Nik Niks with garish, faux Roaring ‘20s scenes adorning the entire back of their shirts. The gorgeous women all had more hair than clothing, just a handful of cloth covering them from bust to butt. I marveled at them frugging like mad on top of tottering platform shoes, all of them twice the height of mine. On everyone, men and women, gold jewelry glittered against deeply tanned skin. As we crossed the room, a ton of confetti showered down on the dance floor, greeted by such whoops of delight you would have thought no one had seen confetti before, although it rained down every hour on the hour from midnight to four.
My inner geek gave one last squawk and rustled up an old chestnut from sophomore year in high school: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” (Stately? Why would you want your pleasure to be stately?) I ordered the thinking, rational side of my brain to shut down. I was transformed: I was Dorothy, I was Alice, I was Cinderella, I was Eliza Doolittle, I was every ragged, dusty fairy tale heroine who had been magically sprung out of the cowshed or attic of her colorless life and propelled into her true destiny, on the arm of a very handsome prince.
Our procession down to the one unoccupied table, which was nestled next to the dance floor and bore a prominent “Reserved” sign, took twenty minutes. Tuxedoed waiters toting ice buckets and trays of cocktails skillfully veered around us. Everyone we passed jumped up to greet Fito and check out his new girl. Glamorous couples were hopping off the dance floor to give Fito a handshake, hug, or double kiss. Except for plenty of side-eye from the women and appreciative looks from the men, I was ignored, but content to stand there and twinkle anonymously; it was way too loud for introductions.
At our ringside table, the waiter pulled out my chair out for me, and Fito shouted in my ear: “What do you want to drink?” I responded in the most sophisticated way I could imagine: “Whatever you’re drinking.”
I was hoping for more champagne. What I got was not a champagne goblet, but what looked like a glass of ice water. A healthy slug left me gasping and blinking; it took a second for me to realize I was drinking vodka on the rocks. This had to be a mistake, the bartender had forgotten to put in OJ or Bloody Mary mix. Before I could point this out, Fito emptied his drink and steered me by my elbow to the dance floor, my head reeling with vodka and lust and disbelief.
Twenty-four hours ago I had been trudging through a foot of snow, leaning into a blizzardly wind as if it were a wall, headed to my job serving hamburgers on paper plates. Without the help of a tornado or magic mirror, I had been transported to this dazzling pleasure palace. I was dancing with the best-looking, sexiest man I had ever seen. The flashes of “Is this really happening?” that shot through my brain did not help my dancing, as nothing short of knee-capping can help my dancing, but I must not have embarrassed myself too badly. My own giddy amazement and happiness made me smile and glow like a newly crowned Miss America. No makeup or jewelry could improve me; I was radiant with glee.
Fito, of course, was a regular disco Fred Astaire who could make a hat rack like me pass as a dance partner. Other couples scooted back to give Fito the room to snap his fingers and swivel his narrow hips, while I did the white girl shuffle while swinging my hair, a move I copied from the go-go dancers on “Shindig!” and “Hullabaloo.”
After enough dancing to make sure everyone at Armando’s saw that he was there, and with a new female accessory, Fito needed another drink. We headed back to our table, where Mindy and Jorge were yelling at each other in two different languages over the music. Fito declared that he was now too thirsty for anything but champagne; the Perrier Jouet arrived in its pretty bottle. We all had a drink, and then Fito and I fell on each other.
There is nothing more thrilling than making out with a very handsome man in a really swell nightclub. It was a roller coaster with no scary parts, a remembrance of twirling around and around like a top as a little kid, and a grown-up electric current of desire. Layered on top was my smug knowledge that we were being eyed by everyone there, who, no matter how much fun they were having, wished they were us. Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You” swelled on; the lights dimmed and became even more flattering. I had the sudden realization that kissing was the best thing ever: lips and tongue are transformed into your entire body, alive with turned-on nerve endings. Without coming out of our lip lock, Fito and I discovered secret ways to get into each others’ clothes, and every touch, every kiss, became more and more exciting. It was better than sex.
While Fito and I were feeding hungrily on each other, Jorge and Mindy were not similarly engaged. I was no prettier than the exotic, ink-eyed Mindy, but I was blonde, and I knew that it was my blondness that had initially attracted Fito’s fickle eye. Maybe he thought the contrast would be more attention-getting, him Heathcliff dark and brooding, me fair and corn-fed cheerful.
Mindy wasn’t engaged in tongue sex, but she was smiling and laughing. Who wouldn’t love the front row tables, the non-stop disco fun, and the free drinks? Every once in a while, I would look up from under Fito’s face to see Mindy dragging Jorge to the dance floor, her way of stopping the advance of his hands. She tried to make it clear to Jorge that she liked him fine but was not going to sleep with him. Jorge made it clear that he liked her a lot and would keep trying to get her to sleep with him. At one point when the music dropped to a dull roar, I heard Jorge wooing Mindy with the promise that if she moved to Acapulco, he could get her a waitressing job.
Fito timed everything perfectly; late, late into the night when we stepped out of the club and into his waiting car, Armando’s lights went on and the disco music went off. Despite much tugging and pleading from Jorge, Mindy insisted on being dropped off at our awful hotel, then Jorge was delivered to his apartment. At Fito’s place, our clothes removed themselves as we clutched our way to his big, satin-sheeted bed, where we stayed until noon the next day.