Monday, June 4, 2012


Photo by Mikael Jansson for Vogue; cast of the play "Skylight."

It's so bright out on the veranda that it hurts your eyes. Bess is watching sun sparkle on the sea, reclining in a chaise longue, feeling like the girlfriend at the end of a movie in which the characters have gotten away with a heist and escaped south of the border. There's always that scene at the end of those movies, the girl in a bikini and straw hat, sipping a margarita in front of the turquoise ocean as her bad-guy boyfriend says something clever into a cell phone to his hapless pursuer back north. James Bond's creator had a famous home in Jamaica; it's a hotel now, and his fans can sleep in his very bed. Bess read about this last week, in British Vogue. The British Vogue is somewhere in a scatter of magazines inside, in the living room. Richard is a history professor--was a history professor, before he retired four months ago--and Bess knows he thinks that some of her reading material is insipid. Sometimes she'll stick a book on top of the magazines--most recently, her paperback copy of "Anna Karenina," a black-and-white cover photo of a girl's knees with a bouquet of violets on her lap, and an Oprah's Book Club stamp of approval over the picture--to remind Richard that she's smart.

She spends more time reminding him that she's young and attractive; this is the easier task. A few days a week, she walks down to the town and goes into a nice clothing boutique (but not one of the really posh ones). Although she doesn't speak Spanish--Richard bought her a learn-Spanish CD set a month before they moved here, but she hasn't gotten past animal names and colors yet--she manages to buy herself a new sundress or espadrilles or pretty lingerie. Richard's body started falling apart shortly before she got him (arthritis, chronic back pain, a bad knee). In the old days, when it was an affair and not cohabitation, he would press his erection against her and say, "I don't need Viagra--I have you." Now he pops the little blue pill with his other vitamins and supplements. He keeps the bottles in his bathroom--in Mexico, Richard can afford a house that not only overlooks the sea but in which they also have separate bathrooms--and Bess doesn't tell him that all the bottles and ointments are a turn-off, or that his gray pubic hair is a turn-off, too. She closes her eyes when she goes down on him.

Bess is pale and burns easily, so she sits in the shade of a giant white-canvas umbrella. It's time for the siesta, but she doesn't feel like taking a nap. The veranda is painted bright white and the sky is cloudless. Heat prickles her limbs and she squints, even in dark sunglasses. Richard's son, Alan, is coming for a visit this weekend. Perhaps she'll go to town to get some fresh flowers to make the house festive, and some ingredients for cooking. What should she make when he's here? What can she make? He'll be expecting something local and authentic, guacamole, tortillas, exotic local fruits. Cerveza like his dad drinks by the six-pack, or maybe tequila.

She puts on her floppy straw hat and retrieves her keys from the air-conditioned inside of the house. She locks the sliding-glass door, which reflects blaring sky and vast searing sea. She follows the stepping stones through the terraced courtyard blossoming with tropical flowers (a selling point highlighted by the real-estate agent). She locks the gate, and walks down a dusty, sloped road into town.


Richard is in town, at his favorite watering hole. Richard and Bess have an unspoken agreement to spend about half the day--the beginning half--apart. They don't say it out loud, but this is so they don't grow tired of each other. The half-day of independence commenced after the first few weeks, those first happy weeks of Bess waking Richard up with a blow job, Richard bringing breakfast to Bess in bed on a tray. It was breakfast in bed, then breakfast together at a small table in their bedroom with the double doors to the balcony flung wide open and salty air soaring in, then breakfast together in the kitchen where Richard read the paper in Spanish and Bess made herself a fruit shake in the new blender. The breakfast-in-the-kitchen phase ended on the morning when Richard rose early, kissed Bess on the forehead, and left a note on the kitchen table saying he had gone to town. The note was in Spanish, to help Bess learn. This is what he does every morning, as Bess sleeps in. He always tries to include a new vocabulary word in his note.

He's happy to be here with Bess. He's particularly happy about it when she wakes him up with a blow job. But he misses talking about adult things. Going on 30, Bess is not a child. But his efforts to engage her in discussions about the news, or politics, or grown-up things such as taxes or changing a tire or cooking that doesn't involve the microwave, falter more often than not. It almost makes him miss his ex-wife, until he remembers times like when the ex hurled a ceramic cereal bowl during a fight and just missed his head. It's not that Bess is unintelligent; it's that she chooses to fill her head with fluff. Fashion magazines, too much time on Richard's laptop visiting the blogs of her friends back home, laughing at the telenovelas she watches (for irony, to laugh at the melodrama of it all) in the afternoons.

He fell in love with her years ago, when he shouldn't have. He'd fallen a little for the sensitive, shy girl he first met when she was a teenager, then fell harder when he ran into her again ten years later, when she was over-helpful and deferential to him at the library where she worked. "Don't I know you from... Bess?" "Dr. Brody!" "How long have you been in Denver? Would you like to have dinner sometime?" "How's Alan doing?"

Now, despite his gentle prods to get her to find a more productive use of at least some of her days (a part-time job, maybe in a boutique in town? freelancing long-distance, maybe e-mailing articles to the U.S. and English-speaking publications? volunteer work? pottery or flamenco dancing?), it's as if Bess is in a dreamy state of permanent vacation. Her accomplishment for the day would be purchasing some pretty new lingerie--earlier this week, it was a matching bra-and-panties set in seashell-pink satin with black-lace trim--and having it on, and nothing else, when he arrived back home in the late afternoon. How his feminist ex-wife would have scoffed.

But then, who was he to judge? He was here, in this bar, as he was every afternoon. The doors and windows all open to the hot day, but cool here in the shade, no inside lights necessary. There are a couple of flies sucking up droplets of beer an inch from his bottle, but they make him think: "ambience... authenticity." Richard prides himself on having found this place away from the touristed main strip, away from the boutiques where Bess shops (because the salesgirls can assist her in English). And this town is off-the-tourist-map as it is, a tiny speck on the aquamarine sea with an Indian name but far from any ruins or anything else most tourists might want to see. One of Richard's colleagues, a professor of Latin American literature, this was her hometown, and she'd touted it as an undiscovered gem. He'd been chagrined to find that the town was not completely devoid of tourists; it was no Cancun, but it did attract a certain brand of adventuring tourist with backpack and Lonely Planet travel guide, and the main street downtown had the requisite souvenir shops whose staffs spoke English. Richard first came here on vacation with an old mistress, Elsa, whom he'd met at a Fourth of July parade. Now he lives here with Bess.

Every day begins at this bar to talk with the reluctant-to-talk owner, Victor, who languorously serves Richard and the one or two locals here, each sitting alone. Sometimes Victor's two sons are there. Roberto is 14, and was wearing a John Lennon T-shirt when Richard first met him. That had excited Richard; John Lennon had not only been his favorite Beatle, but his role model. More often, the son who's around is Javier, 8, who recently acquired a pet tortoise he named Gertie. Today Javier was asking Victor if it was OK to give Gertie a bath in the sink. Is today a school day? Richard has no idea. One day slips into the next into the next.

Then it's time for a walk. Richard isn't drunk when he leaves the bar; there are more beers at home in the fridge that will help him accomplish that later. Away from the tourist terrain, he knows not to stray too far on his own, and to carry in his back pocket a fake wallet that contains about twenty bucks and those plastic fake credit cards you get in the mail, to fake out anyone who might try to rob him. He likes to stroll through neighborhoods, to see women hanging garments on clotheslines, barefoot children playing soccer in the street. The people regard this gringo with curiosity, and automatically speak to him in English before he finesses them with his textbook-perfect fluency in their language.

After the walk, more often these days than when he and Bess first arrived, he goes to a strip club. He likes to learn about the girls, to learn their names, what their lives outside the strip club are like. Bess would be jealous, so he doesn't tell her. Besides, he's mostly conducting amateur sociological research, learning about the everyday lives of his new neighbors, even if there isn't much talk during the lap dances he regularly pays for.


In the main drag through town, male vendors call out to Bess from the market. That took some getting used to, the way they flatter and yell to get her to buy from them. She can't understand what they're saying. One time, one of them had kissed her on the cheek. She had told Richard about it later, hoping to make him jealous or protective, but he only laughed and shook his head. There seems to be no making Richard jealous. It's maddening to her, because the ghosts of Richard's lovers continue to haunt Bess. He apparently still keeps in touch with some of them. A letter had arrived, pretty penmanship and "Lila Downey" atop the return address, a New York City address, less than a month after they'd moved into the house. Trying not to seem jealous, Bess had said, "Who is Lila?" Richard had laughed and said, "An old flame." He'd left it at that. She'd tried to find solace in his use of the word "old" ("old" as in former? "old" as in his age?).

He keeps old photos. The women in them are beautiful. She keeps nothing. Not even an old letter from Alan.


The strip club--also far from the tourist area, the area Bess sticks to--has a back room that serves as what's called, in all the American strip clubs Richard's been to, the champagne room. There's no champagne here, and no special name for the room. But it's known that, if you want to have sex, you can have it back there, for a price.

Richard never goes back there. Although he enjoys his independence from Bess, and grants himself the freedom to fantasize often about other women, he never takes it that far. Part of it is the fear of STDs, but part of it is simply that it's a threshold he won't cross. When the idea tempts him, especially after a few extra beers at Victor's, he snaps back, like the end of a bungee cord pulled to its taut limit. They always try to win him over, though. Today a girl named Adriana sits astride him wearing only a G-string and playfully reaches into his front pocket, where she knows he keeps his real wallet. "Aha!" she laughs, holding out a fan of fifty-dollar bills. It's old money that he hasn't yet converted to pesos--he considers it insulting to pay for things in American dollars, as if implying that pesos aren't real money, although the dollars are gladly accepted everywhere in town. She exchanges a look with the bouncer standing just inside, next to the door. The bouncer has a tattoo of a topless mermaid on his bicep. Richard pretends to laugh it off, gently takes back the money, and shoves the wallet deeper down into his pocket, out of her reach.

Adriana snakes off Richard's lap and climbs back onto the small stage in her stilettos. He smiles appreciatively as she writhes for him, the only customer, her skin bronze, her hair long and whipping as she twirls around the pole. She's hot, and he's hard, but he's really looking forward to seeing Bess when he gets home. He and Alan got diving certificates years ago, and he's campaigning to get Bess to get one, too. He wants to plunge into the clear water with Bess and point out colorful fish and fantastical creatures to her. This was what he'd wanted almost as soon as he'd run into her again at the library, the day she located a book on Mayan ruins, which had been misfiled, for him. The day she'd laughed and blushed and her eyelashes had beaten like the wings of a bird. He'd wanted to drift under the ocean and see hidden worlds with her.


What would Alan like?

Bess hadn't seen him since high school, and Richard hadn't said anything that would give her a clue as to what kinds of foods to buy. Did he drink? Was he a vegetarian now?

Did he have a girlfriend now?

Bess doesn't ask about him much, although Richard obviously delights in talking about him. Alan is Richard's only child, with the first ex-wife. Alan is coming alone; that much Bess knows. It isn't that she plans to flirt with him, or that it really matters whether he'd find her attractive now, does it? Still, she would like for him, after all these years, to think that she looks good. She would want that of anyone who hasn't seen her in years. So she skips the market and goes into a clothing boutique.

What had he liked back then? Goth girls. Girls in bands, girls with purple hair who wore black. Black T-shirts with the names of cool bands on them. What would he like now? In the shop, there are pretty sundresses on mannequins, in a spectrum of colors. Richard likes her in bright colors. She chooses a summer dress in black.


"No no, I went to Victor's before this--I've already had too much to drink!" Richard laughs, in Spanish, but the strip-club owner insists that Richard try the new tequila. High-quality, hard-to-get, good stuff. "For man who appreciates finer things," the owner says, in English. Adriana has disappeared into the dressing room. Richard thinks, Why not? He doesn't want to offend the locals. I'm a local, his fuzzy brain tells him.


Twenty blocks away, in the tourist part of town, Bess stops with her shopping bags full of the Mexican hot chocolate she thought Alan might like to try, local fruits in funny shapes and bright colors, the dress, a new necklace. She stops because she's come to the doorway of a small Catholic church, a cool and dark room of pews and stained glass, right there downtown. The church is sandwiched between a store that sells Dia de los Muertos-themed trinkets for the tourists, and a butcher shop. To the left of the doorway, skeletons made of sugar dance in candy graveyards. To the right, slabs of blood-red meat hang in a display window. Bess enters the church and drops her bags. There's no one else inside. She's a Protestant, and a lapsed one at that, but she walks to the front pew, kneels in front of the altar, and summons forth a rusty prayer she had recited as a child every night before going to sleep.


Last month Richard and Bess had visited a junkyard looking for things to add to the house for cheap: a stone bench for the courtyard, a pretty filigreed wrought-iron gate to replace the wooden one. Among the jumble of mostly unusable castoffs, they'd found an old-fashioned claw-footed bath tub. They didn't need it, but they bought it and put it in the yard, filling it with water from the garden hose, joking like children about how it was their swimming pool. Under the stars, they'd climbed into the bath, Richard's head at one end of the tub and Bess's head at the other, their knees rising up like little mountains above the surface of the star-flecked water. Richard had admired Bess's breasts, half-submerged, the delicate pink nipples. He thought back to how conservatively she'd been dressed at the library (like a... well, like a librarian: turtleneck sweater, knee-length wool skirt) and felt a naughty thrill, but also a surge of love, at having her here with him now. Bess had looked across their tiny private lake, past their knee-islands, at Richard, who had laid his glasses on the stone bench and smiled at her now, and she thought: Right now... You're mine right now.


On the kitchen counter, Bess spreads her purchases, feeling proud and grown-up. She had conducted as many transactions as possible in her fumbling Spanish (she still can't do that trilled "r"). She'll mash up the avocados for guacamole later; she has hours till Richard will come home. She sits on the cream-leather sofa and flips through British Vogue. She picks up the remote control and turns on a telenovela. It's the only sound in the house. She presses the back of her hand to her hot cheek. Has she gotten sunburned today? Freckles? She tucks her legs under her and eases back into the huge cushions, drifting to sleep as the prima donnas in the telenovela scheme and rage.

She wakes to Richard's lips on her forehead, then her collarbone, kissing down, down her body.


Bess flits through the house--straightening a wayward calla lily in a vase, scooping up a dab of guacamole with a tortilla chip to quiet her growling stomach--as Richard picks Alan up at the airport. Richard and Alan are due to arrive in fifteen minutes. She'd thought of buying Alan one of the candy graveyard scenes from the tourist store in town, as a funny gift, then decided against it. Bess stands at the sliding-glass door and looks at the sea, which is sparkling so brightly, blinding. She's wearing a black sundress. She's trying to remember which movie it was that she saw with Alan when they were both 14 years old. The central air conditioning hums, a subconscious drone.

Richard bustles in first, then Alan. Richard is carrying Alan's weekend bag; Alan is carrying his laptop. "Hi!" Bess exclaims, too breathy, too high. Alan nods; he had known she was going to be here. Bess understands--this is the game they're going to play. They're not going to acknowledge the strangeness, they're not going to laugh about it. They're going to pretend that it's normal.

Aliens 3, Bess remembers. The movie was Aliens 3.


On Saturday the boys go diving. Bess watches in the shade on a deck as Richard and Alan wave good-bye from the boat zipping them to a deeper part of the sea, where pretty creatures live underwater. She watches Alan plop into the water first, his father watching. Then Richard plops into the water, too. Bess squints at the bright white light on the water, her pores stinging with sunblock and sweat. In dense trees behind the deck, a cicada chorus shimmers and crescendos.

In the evening, the boys have a Sudoku contest and Bess, pleading ignorance of math, offers to walk to the supermarket to buy more cerveza. She wants Alan's visit with his dad to be a good one, so she offers to leave whenever she thinks up excuses. On a busy street in town, knee-high children swarm around her, trying to sell her tiny packages of Chiclets gum. They say something that sounds like "Chicle." This time, a boy with hot red cheeks, dressed too warmly for the weather, brandishes an empty clear-plastic bottle. It's only later, as Bess is walking home, that she realizes what he was begging her for: "Agua."

Alan wins the Sudoku contest, and Richard, already several beers into the night, wants to take them to Victor's. Then he changes his mind and wants to take them to a bar with a pool table. Bess remembers something Richard said once, that he'd taught two people how to play pool: first Alan, then, many years later, Bess. Bess insists that the boys play first, as she watches from a bar stool. Richard's glasses slide down the bridge of his nose as he squints, his tongue lodged in the corner of his mouth, before making a sure, rapid stroke with the cue. He does this with a precision, fine-tuned over years, that humbles Bess--she'd always used her own time at the pool table to flirt with him, to lean provocatively over the table in short skirts. Sometimes she would intentionally play badly just so that Richard would have to stand behind her, close, one hand on her hip, and patiently explain again how to pull back in one long, slow, masterful backstroke, then thrust with swiftness, accuracy, potency.

Alan is competitive and majored in mathematics in college; he can see the geometric solutions to any ball's quandary, and he wins the first game. Richard says, "Bess? Want to challenge him?" Alan turns to a railing along the wall and polishes the end of his cue with dark green chalk. After a moment's hesitation, Bess selects a cue and Richard takes her place on the bar stool. Richard orders another glass of beer. He notices that Bess is concentrating, that she takes time to consider each move, that she doesn't ask for his assistance. There's no banter between the opponents, who keep their eyes on the shifting formations of the pool balls.

Although Alan wins, Bess knows he could have won much sooner, and that he was going easy on her. She thinks: It's not much, but it's something.


During the siesta on Sunday, Richard dozes in the bedroom, and Bess, who still hasn't adjusted to taking afternoon naps, gets up after ten minutes of trying, and heads for the veranda. She has to pass the living-room couch, which has been Alan's bed all weekend. She's in the hall when she hears the din of canned laughter from the TV. She finds Alan awake, watching a telenovela. Light from the surface of the sea, coming in through the sliding-glass door, makes him vivid to her. His dark curly hair is short now, but had been longer, an eggplant-purple hue with a checkerboard pattern shaved onto the underside of his skull--a sort of alternative-punk style, popular at the time--when she'd known him. Things that are still the same: he wears glasses; his unsettling blue-green eyes.

There had been something between them, once. Not for very long. He had ended it.

He smirks ironically at the hissy fit that one of the actresses is throwing onscreen. He laughs, a soft hiss of air through his nose, and gives a backwards nod of his head. His hands are clasped across his stomach. His posture isn't forbidding. Bess stands still and watches the screen, too. The drama queen fumes in rapid-fire Spanish. Bess says to Alan, "Did you take Spanish? Do you know what she just said?" Without looking at her, he says, "I minored in Spanish, and I have no clue what the hell she just said." Bess doesn't join him on the three-seater couch, but sits on an armchair. They watch, laughing at the same moments.


After Alan has been dropped off at the airport, Bess stretches plastic wrap over leftover lunch and places the containers in the fridge. Richard chatters about the visit, filling the house with talk of Alan because Alan is gone. At one point, he stops and asks, "Are you OK? I know it must have been weird..." Bess smiles, replies that she's fine, says she hopes it wasn't too weird for Alan. Richard says, "I think it was fine... We're all adults now." He steps toward Bess and wraps her in his arms. They kiss their way to the bedroom. In bed, Richard laughs and says, "I'm so lucky you knew my son," as his hands greedily glide over her naked body. Bess takes him into her, and thinks, He led me to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment