I had always played by the rules: Growing up, I behaved well, studied hard, and generally did what I was told. I didn’t drink or do drugs or lie to my mom, I didn’t sleep around, or ever get a bad grade. I worked several jobs to put myself through college, and graduated with honors. It was a busy life, but, for the most part, I was happy.
After college, I took a job as a middle school teacher in an under-resourced school with underperforming students. I had no idea how to be an effective teacher, but I threw myself into the job. I was proud of the gains some of my students made, but my weaknesses sabotaged the good work I was doing. I couldn’t keep organized and my classroom management was shaky, at best. By the end of my fourth year, I was exhausted and burned out. All I could think about was how to get out.
Uncharacteristically, I bolted. I resigned my teaching position, let go of the lease on my apartment, sold all my furniture, and bought a one-way ticket to Mexico City. I knew this move was not about exposing myself to a new culture — I needed to save myself from the constricting life I’d built. I settled on the Eastern coast of Mexico, teaching English at a private school. It was easy work and for the first time in my life, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted.
It turned out that I wanted to experience was the life I’d never had: I wanted to waste time like I had endless amounts of it. I lost myself in long, passionate conversations with taxi drivers and waiters and strangers at cafes. I got high for the first time, and after that I smoked pot whenever I pleased so that I could feel like I was floating, or sinking, or both. I flirted big and had one-night stands with the boys who pressed their bodies into mine at the discos. I ate sticky pan dulce each morning, to hell with all the fat and calories. I spent hours with Patricia, a domestic worker I’d met, learning to make pozole and tamales. On days off from work, I wandered the cobblestone streets, open air markets and hidden parques of my city. I passed many afternoons napping or curled up in bed reading or hiking in the naturaleza surrounding the city. I stayed up late into the night dancing and drinking and taught hung-over, with a wink-wink from my boss, who had usually been the one pouring me shots of tequila the night before.
There were things I wanted to forget, too, for as long and as often as I could. I didn’t want to think about my former students’ chances at success in life. I couldn’t do anything about the credit card bills I was no longer able to pay. I didn’t need that droopy sadness that came when I thought about my friends back in the states who were newly in love, getting married, or having babies. Most of all, I wanted to be free from my heartbreak over losing the man I had wanted to marry.
I wanted, for the first time in my life, to be responsible for as little as possible. I wanted to experience each and every cheap thrill I’d ever denied myself. And though by their nature, these events were transitory, all of them introduced me to secret parts of myself: this place where worry was optional, this other spot where living in the moment felt possible. Each short-lived pleasure taught me some reason to treasure people, places, and moments as they are and not as I want them to be.
There was a cumulative effect of smashing a lifetime of cheap thrills into eight months in Mexico: I realized that joy could come as fast and intensely as pain, and that if I wanted to, I could let happiness swallow up my life whole instead.