The first three times I saw her were at the Ajijic Writers Group. We sat at opposite ends of the patio. Fifty or so attendees separated us. But I noticed her. That woman has style, class, and dignity, I thought. It was reflected in her clothes, posture, and gait. I wonder who she is. She could have been a model.
Several meetings passed. She was not there. I didn’t see her again until PBS aired a report on Lake Chapala and how it had become a magnet to retirees from the US, Canada, and Great Britain. A number of émigrés were interviewed. She was one of them. That’s that classy lady. I know her, I thought, although the second part of the thought was an exaggeration. With a British accent, she made comments praising Ajijic and Lakeside life. Then the reporter, in a voice-over, explained that the woman had an unusual claim to fame; she had been, in 1964, Playboy Magazine’s first international centerfold. My jaw dropped. The photograph was shown. I recognized it immediately. I was familiar with it, not because I had obsessed on Playboy as a teen, but because it had been included in numerous documentaries about the publication and its founder Hugh Hefner. The reporter continued telling the woman’s story, her history and accomplishments. Rose Grayson, despite her appearance in Playboy, went on to become a presenter on British television, the equivalent of TV news reporter and interviewer in the US. After that, she became a judge.
Can you imagine that happening in the United States, a 1964 Playboy centerfold achieving those lofty, respected positions in the conservative, narrow-minded, wholesome US of the pre-women’s, sexual, and gay liberation movements? In fact, nearly two decades later, in 1981, the US was still struggling with its priggish mindset when we saw Vanessa Williams stripped, no pun intended, of her Miss America title because nude photos from her college years had surfaced.
More recently, I befriended another woman through the Writers Group. We had talked on several occasions, even sitting next to each other at the gatherings. It wasn’t, however, until she read an autobiographical piece that I learned, as a younger woman, Lynne had been a California social worker working at San Quentin Prison and had in her caseload Charles Manson. She had interviewed, counseled, and probed the mind of one of America’s most evil criminals. Again I was slack-jaw stunned.
That revelation triggered several questions as I looked at the other attendees. Those questions followed me as I walked home through Ajijic’s streets. They echoed in my head days later as I studied other émigrés and ex-pats around me while I sipped coffee at the plaza, ate in restaurants, and sat in audiences at musical and theatrical performances.
Who are you people, anyway? Who were you before you came here? What are your secrets?
Most of the Americans, Canadians, Brits, and other foreigners residing here are older, most likely retired. We see one another as we look now, in our later years. We generally have no clue what the people around us looked like as young people. We generally have no idea what their lives were like then or what facts about them are yet to be uncovered.
I find myself wondering, as I look at friends, acquaintances, and merely familiar faces around town, which women were high school or college cheerleaders, which men were star athletes, and which, as students, held leadership roles in student government. And which were school bullies. I think which women, as young girls, shrieked for Elvis or The Beatles, and which of the men had posters in their bedroom of Raquel or Farrah. I am curious which of the people around me were elected to public office in their previous lives, or ran unsuccessfully. Is it possible, I wonder, if among the people I have met or see are children of celebrities whose names I would know? Or could any of these people be celebrities themselves—television, radio, sports, film, politics, or theater stars—and I am plain clueless.
I worry that some of these neighbors have had to bury children. Or have become estranged from their families. I think about who has siblings or children with special needs. Have any of the people around me been big lottery winners or filed bankruptcy? I wonder which of the people nearby have been incarcerated. Or should have been. And, on the flip side, I realize some may have been the victim of a crime, perhaps violent. I speculate which of my neighbors are gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender, either openly or secretly. Or which ones have children or grandchildren that live under the LGBTQ umbrella.
I reflect on which of my older fellow transplants served in Vietnam and which, as a result, suffer PTSD, which survived horrible automobile accidents or bounced back from near-fatal illness. I wonder which of the people I see in Ajijic have PhD’s or STDs. And I wonder which ones are members of the GOP.
Oftentimes, we discover long after meeting someone a surprising tidbit about their past or identity. It may be trivial, but it also may be germane to their personality or their private pains. It may be something about which they are proud, embarrassed, or ashamed. It may be something that is purposely kept secret. Or it may be something they no longer consider important or interesting.
We all have friends and acquaintances here in our retirement haven. But we all divulge our histories to them at our chosen pace for our own reasons. And often, so often, discovering those morsels of insignificant information, important facts, or long-held secrets about them shed surprising new light on the individuals or the relationships.
For example, did I ever tell you about the time I got caught naked at a political fund-raiser for…oh, I’m not ready to share that yet.