Un-Made in Mexico

Sex, drugs and the American flag: The true tale of an Orange County family

The Participants sat in this cramped apartment, the book-swallowing wife morphing into something like a madwoman in an attic, cobbling together a philosophy she'd cannibalized from my books and conversation, and unless you have been seriously aurally and visually deficient, you know what came next: home prices rose at record rates that were reported in 84-point type on the front pages of daily newspapers. The home they sold for $750,000 was soon on the market for $1.2 million. The couple declared themselves victims of an unreal market that was headed for something like a real-estate End Times. Still, they would not think of liquidating their portfolio in order to get back into a market that had gone so mad. They had no choice, they said, but to leave the country. They turned Mexicoward.

*   *   *

The Hawthorne Effect went on the fritz before the dust kicked up by my Prius fell back to earth. When the Male Participant spilled my introductory margarita onto his bare feet and the hot, hot sand beneath them, the FP accused him of being "stupid," "clumsy" and "drunk." I tried to dismiss the spill as an accident but was cut off by the FP. "Don't defend him. He does nothing for six months and then comes down here and drinks while I work my ass off."

I was struck by two things in that moment: first, that the FP had, verily, worked her ass into fine shape, but that, second, her husband hardly did "nothing" while in Newport Beach. Indeed, I thought, but did not point out, that his lifestyle had become monkish: deprived of the entire range of wifely intercourse (not merely the carnal but the everyday platonic), deprived too of the MPs, he had little left but his work. Because of the three-hour difference between Wall Street and Newport Center, the sun rose while he labored at his desk; gardeners appeared at the house so long as cash moved digitally from the family checking account into an account for the landscape crew; he watched the sun set over the Pacific from that same desk and then ran for an hour on the aforementioned treadmill at a cathedralic gym in Irvine, ate microwavable dinner at 8, and fell asleep each and every night with shows he'd saved on his programmable TiVo. When he dreamed, he told me, he dreamed of just two things: the desktop computer on which he monitored the tides of stock trades, and staying with his family in Baja for just a few weeks each year.

All of this passed in a moment, and by the time I pictured him asleep in front of Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street Week, the MPs announced they were off to surf camp. I asked if I could come. They shrugged.

*   *   *

I've always been struck by the internal contradictions of traditional wisdom. Absence, for instance, is supposed to generate great affection. But the experiment scored points for an alternative possibility in absence: out of sight, out of mind. Far from making the heart grow fonder, the geographic distance between Newport Beach and the Mexican village of K—the 800 miles separating the Female and Male Participants—had produced a psychological distance that seemed certain to destroy their marriage.

This was apparent to me, perhaps because of my scientific dispassion, if not to the Male Participant. The FP criticized her husband in a way that suggested she was leaching blood. She was capable, I determined in the first hour, of making him crazy, telling him one minute to "just fucking chill out" (suggesting that he ought to enjoy his respite from work) and accusing him less than 60 seconds later of being "lazier than a Mexican" (when he failed to dump the Costco laundry detergent bucket/toilet in a timely manner). While I read her harping as a signifier of something deeply, irretrievably wrong with the conjugal relationship, he saw it as "nothing a few weeks together in Baja can't resolve."

It wasn't just her stream-of-consciousness critique of the Male Participant that suggested trouble in paradise, nor the fact that the Female Participant had dropped a good 25 pounds and had been tanned and blonded by a sun that seemed to hang preternaturally in the sky, that her diurnal "uniform" (FP's word) was by now a bikini she wore in the presence of the largely male expat community, that (calories being calories, she figured) she drank tequila shots rather than ingesting food throughout the day, that (in her husband's absence) she had taken to seeking nightly comfort in the nearby home of an expat contractor (who doubled as the expat community's connection to Mexican coke dealers) while the Minor Participants slept in a travel trailer the Participants parked alongside the rising castle. All of this the Participants dismissed as symptoms of a "midlife crisis." "Everyone's entitled to a re-evaluation," the Male Participant offered, too generously I thought.

But it wasn't just this or the myriad other symptoms of MLC that suggested the experiment had to be stopped. It was the radical shift in (what the FP called) "family priorities."

It had long been understood that the Minor Participants would attend an Ivy League school, presumably the father's alma mater. Indeed, the Baja adventure, now beginning to look more like the 1986 Harrison Ford (and River Phoenix) vehicle The Mosquito Coast, was predicated, as were all previous real-estate endeavors, on the claim that geography produced psychology: once exposed to Baja California, the FP and MP averred, the Minor Participants would become fluent in Spanish, and this bilingualism would ensure them membership in the global elite. But in Baja, and absent the Male Participant's tender mercies, the Minor Participants had discovered surfing, and this had replaced the Female Participant's dream of sending the kids to, say, Harvard and, thence, into the global economy.

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