“Babe, we got this,” she whispered. “Just breathe.”
I couldn’t remember how. Was it in through my mouth and out through my nose or the other way around?
It was seven a.m. and I was in the arrivals hall of the Mexico City airport with my best friend, Camila. Before entering Mexico all visitors must press a button, which randomly lights up red or green. Green means “go.” “Red” means your bags are getting checked. If they checked ours, they’d find the normal stuff: sunblock, flip flops, crumpled sunhats, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in smuggled jewelry. We were jewel mules.
A Mexican officer waved us over. I fought the urge to throw up in my hands as I asked myself, “How the fuck did I get here?”
* * *
The blob of ink that lives on my butt was partially to blame. I was eighteen years old, fresh to New York City, when two new friends and I drunkenly decided the best way to celebrate our love would be to sear each other’s initials on to our barely-legal behinds.
“How you going to feel about this,” the tattoo artist asked, while branding me with a design that looks less like letters and more like a nondescript Hindi symbol attached to a penis, “if one day you guys aren’t friends anymore?”
Crying out against the pain, I shouted, “It’s a testimony to my spontaneity!”
I spent the first half of my twenties honoring that fateful ink on my ass. No one could accuse me of not living in the moment. I had mastered the art of saying “yes.”
Yes, I’ll ride bitch on a 3,000-mile motorcycle journey across Europe. Yes, I’ll jump out of a plane without the proper suit on. Yes, I’ll take that pill you think is ecstasy, but also might not be ecstasy. Yes, I’ll start a charity for kids in Kenya by getting drunk-me to donate through PayPal on my phone. Yes, I’ll lose my mind on mushrooms at the Met. And most recently, yes, Camila, I’ll smuggle jewelry with you to Mexico.
Camila is the only other human I know that lets “yes” roll off her tongue as much as I do. We met as college kids, selling overpriced Champagne to the rich and famous in a high-end Manhattan nightclub. Shuffling around in five-inch stilettos, pouring drinks and boosting egos, we’d earn upwards of $1,000 a night. The money was fast and easy, just what I needed to begin paying off the nauseating student loans I took out to move from my South Florida home to attend film school at NYU.
Camila arrived in New York by way of Colombia and Miami. She comes from a family that makes the drug-fueled violence in “Blow” look like a Disney movie and has a face so hot it hurts your eyes if you look at it for too long.
Together we were an exclusive team of two. After college graduation, rather than carving out careers in the fields of our studies, Camila and I continued using the free-flowing funds for popping bottles to finance our fun. I taught her how to write an email, fill up a passport, and start a limbo line. She taught me how to pencil an eyebrow, burn a bridge, and “make my own price” by switching tags at Marshalls. Every day was a game of dare or dare for us.
The club lifestyle suited us as we gallivanted around in a Neverland of our own making, but by the time we turned 25, the pressure to get jobs based on our college educations, rather than our cup sizes, kicked in.
For a year I did a solid job of playing grown-up, but when a long-term relationship and my attempts to make a living as a writer blew up in my face, my ego took a hit and my confidence ran dry. Rather than putting in the effort needed to move forward in my career, I opted for the safer option of hopping back on the party bus. I mean, why work when you can drink tequila and sleep with door guys?
“It all comes in waves, babe,” Camila reminded me as she lit a joint resting between her lips. It was a weekday afternoon in late December of 2013 and we were both unemployed.
That’s when Lev, a wealthy middle-aged jeweler and former club regular, called with a proposition: fly to Mexico on a red-eye that night, and bring a fortune in high-end jewelry along for the ride. He’d avoid paying export taxes, and we’d get a free vacation and $1,000 each. What could go wrong?
“It’s a sponsored getaway,” Camila rationalized, passing me the joint.
I took a long drag, staring down another winter in New York, where all my green lights were turning to red. Here was an opportunity to make some money while evading my future and supporting my irrational desire to prove that life was, in fact, a beach. So I did what I always do, what the blob on my butt tells me to do. I said, “Yes.”
When Camila left to grab the jewels I called my grandmother, a kindred spirit and fellow adventure enthusiast, to tell her of our plans. Over Thanksgiving she had shared with me her own daredevil dream of sneaking drugs past the TSA in her underwear – she’s not a drug user, just a thrill-seeker. I assumed she’d get a giggle out of our scheme to snag a cool G in return for going on vacation. Not so.
“One thousand dollars?” Granny hollered, “You’re taking hundreds of thousands in jewels and this joker is offering you a grand? What a fool you are!”
With my marijuana haze lifting, the payment did seem laughably low, but before I could get a word in Granny lost it.
“I can see it now,” she guilted me. “You and Camila: the Mexico Two!”
Granny was referring to the infamous Peru Two, another pair of twenty-something girls who were sentenced to six years and eight months in Lima prison after getting caught in the airport with eleven kilos of cocaine.
“Granny, you’re over-rea—”
“Hear me now,” she cut me off. “Each day you get to make choices, you’re making a terrible one! Now, one more pearl of wisdom from Granny: get a goddamn job!” She slammed the phone down, as she does, to get the last word in a fight.
I turned to Google, hoping to prove that unlike narcotics, no one goes to jail over necklaces, but it was then that I stumbled upon the cautionary tale of Vihari Sheth. A former model and accomplice to a jeweler in Mumbai, Sheth was arrested for smuggling $400,000 worth of jewelry in her panties while flying from India to Singpore. Sheth was jailed for 57 days and forced to pay enormous fines for her stunt.
A few clicks further and I found the US law in Title 31, Section 5332, stating: “Whoever knowingly conceals more than $10,000 in monetary instruments and transports them from a place within the US to a place outside of the US…shall be imprisoned for not more than five years.” It turns out our little vacation was in fact a federal crime.
Camila was on her way downtown from Lev’s 47th Street shop when I called insisting, “We can’t do this.”
“Lev’s waiting for us in Mexico and I already have the goods,” she scoffed. “We’re going.” There was no point in trying to sway her. This is the woman whose own mother illegally crossed the Mexico-US border with a coyote four times, once with her eldest daughter, a toddler at the time.
“Don’t worry. You don’t have to go,” the master manipulator offered. “I’ll take all the jewelry on my own. ”
FOMO rising, I could practically feel the tattoo on my ass itching beneath my pants, daring me to prove my spontaneity.
“Okay babe,” I exhaled, preparing to recite our mantra, the one we say to each other in moments when we need a boost of courage for anything from breaking a boy’s heart to committing a federal crime, “We got this.”
Back at Camila’s apartment I sat paralyzed on her couch as she pranced around, dripping in diamond necklaces and bracelets littered with rubies. She gazed lovingly at her reflection in the mirror, “Wealth looks good on me, doesn’t it?”
She wasn’t wrong. “How much is all of this worth?” I asked, surveying the spoils.
“I didn’t ask,” she shrugged. “The less we know the better.”
Camila fastened three platinum necklaces, linked into one long one, around my neck. They felt as natural on me as fuchsia lipstick on a six-year-old. “What do I say if TSA asks me where I got all of this?”
“You’ll say your lover gave them to you.” She switched off the lights, waving a large emerald ring in my face. “Look!” she gushed, “You can tell it’s a good one when it glows in the dark!”
Flipping them back on, she saw the fear in my eyes and insisted on taking the heavy load of jewels. “See?” she giggled, mixing a bag full of costume jewelry in with Lev’s priceless stones. “If we put them with the fakes, no inspector would guess they’re real.” She was a little too good at this.
“Did you tell your mom what we’re doing?”
“Yeah. She told me to watch out for thieves and to make sure I’m home for Christmas Eve.”
Thieves!? I had been so worried about customs officials that the thought of thieves never crossed my mind.
*Cue this chick getting the shits.*
* * *
At JFK I entered the body scanner, hands raised, sweat stains forming, waiting for the guard to interrogate me. “Oh, these half a dozen Asscher-cut diamond bracelets?” I practiced in my head. “My lover gave them to me. He’s rich. Like really rich. Like, ‘Go ahead and order every dessert on the menu’ kind of rich.” My prepared monologue went to waste when the guard waved me through without hesitation.
While Camila snoozed peacefully in flight, I kept a look out for potential thieves. The flight attendant who passed by one too many times asking if I wanted water – was she being courteous or waiting for me to fall asleep so she could slide the yellow diamond off my finger? And what about the guy furiously writing in his notebook in 11B? Who did he work for?! I stayed on guard until we landed safely in Mexico City.
At customs we were directed to the desk of a steely-faced officer. He looked us up and down. Me: sweaty, exhausted, aggressively shrugging. Countered by Camila: sexy, cool and confident.
She flashed the officer a flirtatious smirk, “Hola,” she purred.
His stern expression broke. “Americana?”
“Si, pero soy de Colombia,” she replied.
He nodded, knowingly. In Spanish, he asked if our trip was business or pleasure. Pleasure, of course. Did we have anything to declare? I followed Camila’s lead, shaking my head probably a few more times than was necessary. Flirts, giggles, and likely a marriage proposal were exchanged, then with one final wink, the officer stamped our passports and we were on our way to the dreaded traffic light.
“Babe, we got this,” Camila whispered. “Just breathe.”
My clammy hands clung tightly to my freshly stamped passport as the officers waved us over
“Think green,” she instructed.
Dollar bills, arugula, golf courses, marijuana, cypress trees, pine trees, acacia trees, all trees really, flashed through my head as we approached the pair of smug officers.
Camila batted her eyelashes. “Roja o verde? Roja o verde!” she teased, playfully hovering her expensive paw over the button. The officers nudged each other, delighting in the flirtatious game.
I continued holding my breath, fears flashing before my eyes. Would I have to admit to future employers that I had a criminal record? Would I be locked up so long that by the time I got out my smile lines would be fully-realized wrinkles? Would I have to learn how to go down on a woman in prison? Would I like it?
I made loaded promises to the universe of all the ways I’d change my life if we got green. I’d start recycling. I’d take my vitamins. I’d use condoms. I’d vote in local elections. I’d start wearing underwear. I’d take a job, any job, almost any job. Oh, God…
Camila pressed the button. And boom, it was green! My shoulders disconnected from my ears and my involuntary Kegels stopped. The officers shrugged as Camila grabbed our bags, blowing them a kiss.
Outside the arrivals door, a small Mexican man stood in front of a large Range Rover holding a sign with our names on it. As we climbed in the back I naively asked, “What hotel are we staying at?”
There was no hotel. We were shacking up at the home of Esteban Ruiz, the host of the Christmas party. My Kegels commenced again as the scene from “Taken” where Liam Neeson’s daughter is auctioned off to Saudi princes raced through my mind.
“What if the jewels were just a way to get us here?” I whispered. “What if there’s a whole other plan? What if we’re being sold into the sex trade?”
She rolled her eyes, “I’ll make sure they sell us as a pair.”
* * *
An armed guard opened a gate leading to Esteban’s lush estate where housekeepers and peacocks openly scampered about. Camila ogled an SUV-sized gold cage, perched beside a two-tier pool, which housed an assortment of exotic parakeets. The birds squawked loudly, but we were so far removed from civilization, I was sure no one outside of the grounds could hear their calls, or hypothetically, a cry for help from two American girls.
The guard locked the gate behind us as Esteban arrived on his steps, wearing nothing but a sarong and straw fedora. A stocky man with a severe expression, he paused, patting his round belly, before waving us in with a mischievous smile.
Ancient Mayan and Aztec artifacts lined the walls of Esteban’s home. He gave us a tour, showing off his rare collection of pottery, thick beads of turquoise, and carved stone sculptures dedicated to the gods of fertility, rain, and bees.
“Are you allowed to have all this stuff?” I asked, with a mixture of awe and suspicion, taking note of the dangerously sharp arrowheads surrounding me. “Doesn’t it belong in a museum?”
Placing a plump index finger over my lips, he erupted in child-like giggles. “It is in a museum,” he declared. “My museum.”
Although it appeared we had stumbled into the compound of a seasoned drug lord, Esteban turned out to be as harmless as he was gay. As we lounged beneath his palapa, he carved meat off a pig leg, feeding it to us with his fingers. I tried to convince myself I was on vacation while Esteban spewed philosophies, superstitions, and spells like a fat wizard in a silk kimono.
“Life is like a train,” he said, delivering each word with measured intonation as if it were a performance. “People get on and off your car. You ride together, but you don’t know for how long or what destination you’ll end up. There may be times when you get off, but you must get back on. The train takes you forward and forward is the only way to go in life.”
Esteban’s words cut deep. (I’m a sucker for an analogy, especially when it comes at me with an accent.) I hit the rewind button on my trajectory towards adulthood and was hiding out in senseless, highly illegal distractions because for some cowardly reason, that felt safer than facing rejection again.
I took a large gulp of my piña colada, and told myself that I had Camila on my journey so the destination wasn’t so important. The journey is the destination… right? So what if we were a little lost? I would write again. When I was ready. Maybe Esteban and I would even co-author a self-help book, “It’s All Going To Be Okay & Other Lies.”
I was three drinks deep when Lev woke from a tequila-induced siesta. It was then that he informed us our obligations were not complete. “You’re going to be models at Esteban’s Christmas party,” he explained in his thick Brooklyn accent. “You wear the jewelry, they buy the jewelry, we have merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, sweet New Year. Got it?”
Camila giggled, nodding. So, like usual, I followed her lead.
The party was the night before Christmas Eve. Prepping in our suite, I slid into my turquoise gown. It matched perfectly with the weight of my mistakes that hung from my neck in the form of a heavy cushion-cut emerald-and-diamond starburst necklace. Its value exceeded my student loan debt.
Camila came up behind me, fastening Lev’s glistening stones into her ears. “This is going to be fun, babe,” she tried pumping me up with a dose of her unwavering optimism. “We’re saleswomen, we like to sell.”
I locked eyes with my reflection, trying to find my former self, the salesgirl with the gravity-defying boobs and sixth sense for sniffing out a black AmEx, but I didn’t see her.
* * *
Waiters in black slacks and bowties passed through the estate, filling our glasses with Champagne while a nasally singer serenaded us in Spanish. We roamed the grounds trying to lure in potential buyers, but as the guests arrived, the couples veered away from us. Apparently two white girls dressed to the nines look less like models and more like whores. Expensive whores, for sure, but whores nonetheless.
Lev hustled up, stealing a sip from my glass, “Ladies, ladies, how are my little ladies doing?”
“Not great,” I confessed through a plastered smile.
“Can you pay us tonight?” Camila asked. When it comes to money she’s not one to mess around. “I have to be back in Jersey for Christmas Eve.”
“You’ll get your money when you return the pieces to my office,” he smirked. “Whatever you don’t sell, you’re bringing back to New York.”
What?! Going through customs in Mexico was scary enough, but doing it in the U.S., where I couldn’t pretend to be a clueless tourist, was more than my nervous Jewish system could take.
Watching my anxieties rise, Camila whispered our mantra in my ear: “Babe, we got this.” But I wasn’t so sure I had “it” in me anymore.
I gravitated towards the cheese spread to find solace, but as I snagged a piece of manchego, a silver-haired gentleman wrapped his arm tightly around my waist. Attempting to pull me onto his lap, he asked, in broken English, “You do this in New York?”
Do what? Smuggle jewels? Behave like an escort? Live a little too hard in the “now”? Less than a year earlier I had felt powerful in my life choices, I could hold my own. Yet here I was, being held by some creep and feeling like a real hooker about it.
I wasn’t that angst-y eighteen-year-old anymore, desperate to prove my “testimony to spontaneity” by living my life like it was a collection of stories. I wriggled out of the man’s grasp, shooting Camila a pained look. She nodded, knowingly. Our game of dare or dare had played itself out.
Lev managed to sell a good portion of his contraband after Camila and I called it quits on the party, but there was still a large load to be distributed between our luggage. As we rolled our bags to the customs line in JFK, I quietly begged the universe, “Please just get me back safe. I’ll get a job that requires me to fill out at W2. I’ll stop checking my ex’s Instagram. I’ll rescue a three-legged pit bull. I’ll use condoms…for real this time.”
The universe got my message. The United States customs was worryingly easy. Instead of speaking with a TSA agent, we checked in at a machine, then handed a receipt to a guard who greeted us with two words: “Merry Christmas.”
* * *
My former club pal, Cristina, called the following morning with an offer, “My friend rented a house in Rio. Want to do New Year’s in Brazil?”
Fighting the party demons within, I summoned quite possibly my first adult decision: “No.”
Instead of partying in South America, I jumped back on the forward moving train of life and spent my dirty money on a one-way plane ticket to Hollywood. As it turns out, “No” didn’t break me. For the first time in my life “no” actually felt right.