[Essay] At the Mercy of an Old Friend

Updated: Jul 19

By Michael Cuglietta


We took a bus to the Aztec pyramids, an hour outside Mexico City. After touring the pyramids, we were picked up by Daniel’s friend, Alonzo. A decade older than us, Alonzo was a proud Mexican man but, with white hair, light skin, and perfect English, could’ve passed as an American. From what I could piece together from their conversation—only part of which, for my benefit, was in English—he shared a sexual history with Daniel. Both were eager to show me a piece of Mexican culture not seen by many gringos—the pulque hut.


Made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, pulque has been brewed in Mexico for a thousand years. It’s a thick, milky drink with, as Daniel and Alonzo eagerly pointed out, the consistency of semen.


The pulque hut was a half-hour drive through agave fields with Jurassic-sized plants. The Pulque sign hanging over the doorway was runny, black spray paint on a sheet of rotting particleboard. I stood underneath and had Daniel snap a picture. Before stepping inside, I sent it to my wife back home in Florida. She messaged right back: Please be careful.


The hut was an open-air, stone structure. Inside were two picnic tables. The old woman serving the pulque stood outside, in the agave field, passing the pulque through a window cut in the stone wall. She was maybe five feet on her tiptoes, with a wide face and skin like burnt cocoa.


I imagined that steeped in tradition, pulque would be poured from handmade clay jugs decorated with folk art. Instead, it was ladled out of plastic mop buckets, swarming with flies, and served in Styrofoam cups.


I picked up the first round. It cost less than two US dollars. Alonzo put his down fast and, before going up for more, told us it’d been six months since he last had a drink.


Daniel told me last time he went out drinking with Alonzo, they blacked out and awoke the next morning lying on the stoop of a building, in a part of the city Daniel had never been to before. In addition to their wallets and cellphones, Alonzo was missing his prescription sunglasses.


“I think I was hit by a car,” Daniel said. “There were tire tracks on my pants.”


“Here you go, men.” Alonzo returned with the second round.


Besides us, there was a family of four. The wife nursed her drink while the husband kept going up to get his refilled. Their two young children sat there, quietly. I tried imagining my niece and nephew sitting so still, without a single electronic device.


Their father’s hair was littered with sawdust, as if he’d spent the day at a lumber mill and hadn’t bothered to wash or even run a hand through his hair before coming out. The only other person in the hut was a day laborer who’d scored a weeks’ work on a nearby avocado farm. He was younger than us but looked much older, with hardened leather skin and most of his teeth gone.


A wild dog found her way in. She rubbed against my leg. Then showed me her belly. Covered in mange and flea ridden, she was desperate for someone to scratch her.


The day laborer and the man with sawdust in his hair were grateful when we included them in the next round. Then the next. After my fourth pulque, I decided I wasn’t going to let a little mange keep me from loving on that poor dog. I got down on my knees and gave her a deep tissue massage. Her coat was matted patches, so dry I thought they would break off, like dead leaves from a tree. As I pet her, she kissed my face.


Daniel joined the family. He was sitting beside the father. They had their arms around each other. The way they were gazing into one another’s eyes, I wondered if, maybe, pulque was an Aztec love potion, capable of turning straight men gay or, at least, curious. The wife was still sipping her first drink. The kids still quiet as daddy played footsy with the skinny American guy.


The old woman serving the pulque came in with a bowl of salsa, which, according to Alonzo, I had to try. He grabbed a tortilla from a stack that was sitting directly on the table, no plate.


I wanted to wash my hands, but the bathroom looked to be the petri dish from which all filth was birthed. Bravely—or foolishly—I finished the pulque in my cup, stepped up to the table and, with the same hand I’d just had buried in that dog’s belly, grabbed a tortilla, scooped up some salsa, and shoved it in my mouth.


Eight hours later, back in my Airbnb, I’d be jilted awake. I’d throw the covers off and rush to the bathroom, newly armed with the knowledge that I was now serving as host to a family of parasites.

After one final round, Daniel and Alonzo decided they wanted to go to the American Legion, in the city, which, every Saturday night, was transformed into a dance club for expats. Daniel and his new friend hugged good-bye. I requested to be dropped off at my Airbnb. Daniel convinced me to stay out for one quick beer.


Before we went to the Legion, we stopped at a 7-Eleven for frozen burritos, which we heated up in the microwave in the back of the store. Casually, as if we were in his kitchen, Alonzo reached into the fridge and passed out cans of beer. He cracked one open, catching a glare from the woman working the cash register.


“Are we allowed to drink these in here?” I asked.


“Sure,” he said, ducking under the coffee machine to take a sip.


The guy who hosted Saturday nights at the Legion was a veteran of the most recent Gulf War. When we arrived, the place was packed. While everyone else was dressed up like Saturday Night Fever, the host was in faded jeans and a leather vest with military patches sewn on, a black T-shirt clinging to his Popeye arms.


As our original plan was to return from the pyramids for an early dinner in the city, I hadn’t bothered taking the address of my Airbnb with me. I knew how to walk there from the bus station. But having no idea how to get to the bus station, I was at the mercy of Daniel.


“I’ll get you a cab, but you have to have one more beer with us” was followed, one beer later, by “Just one more, then I’ll put you in a cab. I promise.”

I was leaning against a wall, off to the side of the dance floor, fighting to keep my eyes open, when the host came storming through the room, parting the crowd. Alonzo was dancing with his hands in the air. His eyes closed, he didn’t see the host approach. The host grabbed him by the wrists and rushed him backwards. Alonzo tripped, hitting the back of his head on the wall with a thump that could be heard over the blaring music.


Daniel was in the bathroom. I watched from the other side of the room. The two men stood so close their noses touched. Alonzo was a foot taller but had the physique of a string bean. The host yelled in his face while jabbing a fat finger into his chest. Defiantly, Alonzo smiled.


I was asking myself what role, if any, I would play in the violent scene about to unfold when, thank God, two security guards calmed the host down. Reluctantly, he walked away.


Alonzo, looking like he was dumb enough to pursue further confrontation, was restrained. I ran over. The security guys spoke no English.


“Gringo es mucho machismo.” I made a lame attempt at Spanish, pointing in the direction of their boss. They escorted Alonzo to the exit. I went to find Daniel.


Outside, Alonzo told us he bumped into an antique light fixture hanging over the dance floor. After that, he pushed it a few times, like a swing. The host, apparently, held this fixture in high regard.


“What a psycho,” Alonzo said. Followed by, “Gay bar?”


“Gay bar!” Daniel agreed.


“No way,” I said. It was 2:00 a.m. A more than reasonable time to call it a night.


“Come for one drink,” Alonzo said.


I turned to Daniel and, with tears in my voice, said, “Please help me get back to my Airbnb. I need to go to bed.”

*


When the buzzer went off, as early as it was, I was awake. I’m sure I had a terrible hangover but was too distracted by my stomach to notice. It felt like there was fire water trapped inside my gut, urgently trying to make an exit.


Daniel’s strategy was to hold the buzzer down. BUZZZZZZZZZZ. Then he worked it like Morse code. BUZZ. BUZZ. BUZZZZZZZ. BUZZ. BUZZZZZ. BUZZ. He’d pause long enough to make me think he’d given up. But, then: BUZZ. BUZZ. BUZZZZZZZ. BUZZ. BUZZZZZ. BUZZ.


I buried my head under the pillow. My mouth was so dry, when I ran my tongue along the inside of my lip, I felt the sting of so many microscopic cuts. I had finished my last bottle of water before going to bed. I’d once read that dehydration resulting from diarrhea was a leading cause of death in developing countries. I remembered the ads for adult Pedialyte which decorated the terminal at the airport when I arrived.


The buzzing stopped long enough to convince me it was safe. I went to the bathroom one last time before venturing out. There was a corner store a couple doors down. I grabbed two large bottles of water.


When I returned, Daniel was back on the buzzer.


“Daniel?” I faked surprise.


“Where have you been? I’ve been ringing the bell all morning.”


“I went out for water.” I pulled one of the bottles out of the bag.


“I’ve been here all morning.”


“I woke up early and went on a walk.”


“Where’d you walk to?”


“Around the neighborhood. What are you doing here?” I said, changing the subject.


After they put me in a cab, they went to a gay club which had a room in back with loud music and no lights, where guys went for anonymous sexual encounters. It was also, Daniel explained, a popular spot for pickpockets.


“I’m always alone, so I never had a chance to go to the back room.”


But this time he was with Alonzo, who was happy to hold onto his wallet, phone, and keys while Daniel went back.


Up in the apartment, Daniel sat on the couch and told me he was sure he’d been exposed to an untold number of STDs.


“Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m sure you’re fine,” I said. But then he detailed the unprotected things he’d done in that back room.


“The worst part is I don’t even know if the guys were hot. I couldn’t see them.” This revelation had him in tears.


“You’re just tired. Go lay down. You can have the bed.”


When he had come out of the back room, Alonzo was gone, taking with him Daniel’s wallet, keys, and phone. Leaving him no option but to walk to his apartment.


“It took me two hours. My roommate wasn’t there. He must’ve spent the night at his girlfriend’s. So then I had to walk all the way over here.”


“You must be exhausted.”


Before going to bed, he wanted to take a shower. “Could I borrow a pair of your boxer shorts?”


“You want to borrow my underwear?”


He confessed to relieving his bowels two times since leaving the club. “Nothing was open. I had to squat in the gutter, like an animal. Stop that. It’s not funny.”


I stopped laughing long enough to say, “My suitcase is in the bedroom, take whatever you want.”


The apartment had a rooftop garden. While Daniel washed up, I went out to give him privacy.


Daniel and I have been friends since high school. Sitting out on the rooftop, I felt bad for how I’d ignored him earlier. What kind of a friend was I? He was wandering the streets in shit-stained pants while I was in my warm bed. Actually, I was going back and forth from the bed to the toilet, but still, that’s no way to treat a friend.


He knew I was lying when I told him I was out on a walk, but was kind enough not to call me on it. This is what I was thinking when I felt movement in my gut. I ran for the door. Locked. Why the hell hadn’t the owner warned me the door would lock behind me? Shouldn’t there be a sign or something?


I pounded on the glass. “Hello, can anyone hear me? Estoy atrapado! Someone, please help!”


I would’ve broken the window, but there was no time. I walked over to one of the flower beds. I was moments away from dropping my pants and fertilizing the roses when the door swung open.


“Thank you so much.” I could’ve kissed him. I sprinted for the apartment. “You saved my life,” I called back to my old friend, who, unlike me, had come to the rescue.


Michael Cuglietta's work has appeared in NOON, The Gettysburg Review, LOST, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. He is the author of the fiction chapbooks Vertigo (Gertrude Press, 2014) and Clams in White Wine (Paper Nautilus, 2018). He can be found at www.michaelcuglietta.com.