Privately, she was happy about the high mountains.
Since they came to Mexico over a month ago, her husband never stopped driving between pre-planned destinations except togas up or to eat. But now the radiator steamed, the valley below them steamed, and Stan steamed with the impatience he’d packed in New York along with his jockey shorts and the silver flask and the other necessities of life.
“And why don’t they tell you exactly how steep the roads are?” he fumed, pacing in front of the van and not enjoying the view at all.
Whoever wrote the guidebooks, she thought, never accounted for the dun shades and the quiet, either.
From where Cynthia stood, the valley was a sheet of gray-green steam which blended at ragged points with the more silvered gray of the gulf and its early fog. Where were the brilliant basic colors of the tropics, she wondered. Where the ladies in red skirts that tie against brown waists and the electric blue birds? Would she see flames of orange. and growing yellow plants as they whizzed through that valley to THE NEXT PLACE?
“Let’s push on,” said Stan. “It’s downhill all the way and we can get it fixed at the first station.”
She climbed into the passenger seat and caught the maps which fell from the dashboard as they accelerate.
“There must be a town own there somewhere,” he said, shifting into neutral and letting her coast. “Check it out or me, will you navigator?”
She pulled out the Triple A map and located “Tehuantepec.” As she knew from her experience as second officer in this tightly-run land cruiser, middle-size red letters indicated a town large enough to have a Pemex station with a high grade of gasoline, a café that sells Coca-Cola with ice, a rest room clean enough for Stan to get through one chapter of The Conquest of Mexico.
When the road leveled out, they passed a turn-off for “Salina Cruz.”
Cynthia read from the guidebook.
The United States, which maintained rights to this Isthmus, built the Panama
Canal instead, and the port of Salina Cruz declined in traffic and importance.
Salina Cruz, she thought, Salty Cross? Once the life’s blood of this tropical world, the Ostia Antica to Tehuantepec’s little Rome, down from glory now to a turn-off on the road to an annoying stop on the way to the next place. Salina Cruz was on the beach and appeared on the Triple A map in very small black letters. Thin and lower case. Nowhere.
Should she try?
“Five Dollars a Day calls the architecture ‘macabre,’ Stan. ‘An air of fading decay, ‘ it says.”
She looked at him sideways an up, the second move in a little game they
“Sweet-heart,” he grinned, alta voce on the “heart.”
This was the third move and meant “no” to whatever the first-move description
She smiled on the driver’s side of her mouth and looked out the window. That ended the game until the next time.
“Keep the eyes peeled for a gas station, will you, navigator?”
Goddam Mexican mechanics. Don’t know a wrench from their assholes.”
It would take two days to fix the van. The only hotel did not register new guests until after three p.m.
He carried his Nikon outfit and she carried her make-up kit and the guidebook, and they walked down a pocked dirt road into the village.
As they neared the central square, Stan softened. He commented on the weather (“hot”), the stature of the women (big, never seen Indian women so big”), the state of local commerce in the open stalls (“real hustlers, aren’t they?”). She liked him so much better like this. He may be short tempered at times, touchy; but once in a situation he judged inevitable, he made the best of it. Pragmatic, Stan was. And highly observant. She relaxed too.
The market place was not like those they’d toured in Mazatlan or Cuernavaca or Acapulco. (Did Mexico City have a market place?) These stalls were part of no building. They were not permanent, numbered or named. Each corner pole was made of several bamboo sticks bound together by fronds, and their white tarp roofs could be lowered on any side to shut of blowing rain or annoying neighbors. The stalls faced the streets on four sides of the plaza, arrange like a covered wagon compound protecting an inner circle of playing children and men of all ages. It took her nearly an hour of browsing to realize this division: the men and the children were on the inside of the plaza,
while all the business in the town was handled by women. Without exception, women (if one could say so) manned the stalls, sold the beans and the dry goods, weighed the fish and hawked the chiles. They wore long skirts of filmy flowered material and short, square blouses, black and shining and bordered with silken thread in geometrical designs.
They found an empty bench in the shady plaza, among the children and the men, and waited out the opening of their hotel. The inevitable statue in the square was an effigy of Juana Cata Romero, a beautiful Tehuana of the nineteenth century who made her living playing billiards and selling coconut candy to soldiers. She became the mistress of one Liberal officer, and spied on enemy movements. The guidebook was flippant, and the women on the next bench mythic about their information, but between the two sources Cynthia discovered that Doña Juana engaged in many other profitable intrigues, never lost her magic with the young officer, who eventually became President of the Republic, and wielded great power in Tehuantepec until her dying day.
Officially, the town honors her as a charitable old lady who rebuilt the cathedral, create a convent and donate land for the local cemetery.
But Cynthia looked around at the women in the market place, busy and brazen and dressed with such flair and care, and she realized that Doña Juana was the symbol of Tehuantepec because she was beautiful and shrewd.
“It’s three o’clock,” said Stan, rising from the bench.
“Go ahead,” she said. She felt she had to finish out her thought, even if it only took a minute. “I’ll be right behind you.”
She watched the women arranging baskets and bolts of fabric, handling money, selling, laughing, conniving, sweeping, buying, swapping. What an odd place, she
thought, so unconventional. She knew that’s the word she would use to describe it all later, back home when Stan showed his slides. Yet she knew the word was priggish and wrong and didn’t do the place justice. At any rate, she thought, it’s no wonder that woman Juana is the local ideal – no soldier-saints or marble presidents or granite generals for this town. She saw that all the women, even the girl-children, wore their long black braids plaited with dime-store sateen; older women piled the braids and ribbons to shape crowns of many colors. Tropical commerce queens reigned over the busiest market south of Oaxaca and Cynthia was both anxious and pleased to know she must be among them for two days.
The boy behind the desk sipped from a Coke bottle and moved very slowly. He wore white pants and a shirt open to the waist.
She wondered why he didn’t perspire.
“My mother is not here,” said the boy.
Stan glanced at her and raised an eyebrow. He had developed the gesture to an art
in the past month; he was letting her know it was the two of them against the Indian again, whether the Indian be a border inspector, an irresponsible maitre d’ in a posh Acapulco club, or, as in the present case, the hireling with whom one must have infinite patience.
“Well then,” he responded. “How-about-your father?”
Cynthia flashed uncomfortable for a moment, but caught her husband’s glance and turned away so the boy wouldn’t see her smile. It was something they had together.
“My father is in the barrio of St. John. He is making preparation for the fiesta.”
“We need a room. We sent a fellow over from the gas station and he said there would be a room at three o’clock.”
The boy leaned his elbows on the desk and cupped his chin in his hands. He examined the two strangers who stood before him, sweating and frayed.
“You have come for the fiesta?” he questioned.
“Look,” said Stan, his face reddening somewhat now that he was receiving no more pleasure from the encounter. “We don’t know anything about a fiesta. All we want is a room with a fan and some clean sheets.”
They looked over the long, low bungalow with its eight unnumbered doors. “Which one may we have?”
“You may take any room you wish,” said the boy. He leaned back in the canvas
chair and finished off the Coke. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and addressed Cynthia.
“We have no other guests.”
After his shower, Stan spread the maps over the bed and fell asleep. She covered him with a sheet.
She waited for the man from the gas station to deliver their bags, then showered and set her hair. Cynthia didn’t begrudge the time she spent setting her hair and sitting under her portable dryer as most women she knew did. When the twins were younger, it was the only private time she had. Now, of course, the twins went to school, but for some reason there didn’t seem to be many more hours in the day. So twice a week she looked forward to locking the bathroom door, and to watching her face in the mirror as
she separated strand after strand with the rat-tail of her comb and spread them smoothly over the colored rollers: three big purple ones on top, winding away from the forehead; middle-size yellow ones (with holes so the air can circulate) down the sides; and small violet ones in the back. She fixed a piece of cotton over each ear with klippies and pulled on a plastic bonnet. The lazy drone of the overhead fan was replaced by the sound of hot air blowing through a baby blue hose into the bonnet and through the rollers. The noise was delicious. It shut out every other sound and left her to her own thoughts. With her eyes closed she must certainly be invisible. Patterns for survival die hard: even when the threatening situation has passed, the pattern is not abandoned but becomes ritual, that it might be readily resurrected should the need arise again. Thus, in the middle of the tropics, with no children, telephones or multi-tentacle house to demand her, with her husband asleep, with the temperature in the nineties and the humidity at eighty-seven per cent, the woman set her hair and lay back to savor her hour under a hot hair dryer.
She thought her blowing-hot-air-thoughts. She always imagined herself in movement at such times: dancing, hiking, gliding, parading. Now she had faint impressions of herself floating in and out of the stalls in the market place. She somehow spoke the language of the big, beautiful women, helped them sell the pineapple and sort the tamarind, and shared a fried fish with an ancient proprietress who wore bright orange pyramids embroidered on her blouse. The smell of burning wires arouse Cynthia a split second before her hair dryer blew up.
Stan shot from the bed. “What the hell?”
The explosion was a shock and the odor was terrible. She pointed to the blackened outlet.
“What happened?” he demanded. “You didn’t plug that thing in here, did you?”
She removed the bonnet and crossed to open a window. He yanked the plug from the socket.
“Leave it in, please,” she said calmly. “I want to see if it still works.”
He laughed before he saw she was quite serious.
Then he sat own next to her on the bed, spread his palms out flat and leaned
toward her intently. It was an attitude he often took when reasoning with the twins. Why had she never noticed that before?
“Look, Sweetheart. I told you not to use the dryer again after Mexico City, didn’t I?”
“No,” she ventured, idling with the switch. “No, you didn’t. I would have remembered.”
“It’s no use trying to fix it,” he said. “The voltage, remember? It’s lower here.” “Then it shouldn’t blow up. It should just slow down.”
He explained very slowly. This deference irritated her much more than his
“You see, Sweetheart, when the voltage is lower the motor on your hair dryer has
to work that much harder. At some point it just can’t take the extra pressure, and it blows up.”
He put an arm around her shoulders. “You understand, don’t you?”
She wriggle out of the embrace and shook her head. One of the small violet rollers fell out and rolled across the concrete floor.
“But you could have told me, couldn’t you? I mean, how was I supposed to know?”
“But I did tell you,” he said “And even if I didn’t, why should I have to? Aren’t there some things you can figure out for yourself?”
He was up and dressing now. She realized she could continue what had become a full-fledged argument with a word or two. And she knew exactly which words to use and which phrases would counter them, ad infinitum or dinner, whichever came first.
Maybe it was the heat. Her mind wandered. She thought of a game she and her brother played when they were children. Gary had some special jokes he used to tell when the parents had company. When the adults had heard the stories several times, and they weren’t funny any more, she and Gary numbered their five best jokes. She remembered that the one about the priest, the clergyman and the rabbi in the lifeboat was number two, and the one about the fleas in the opera’s dressing room was number five. After that, whenever they had company, one of the two children would suddenly shout, “FIVE!” or “THREE!” and the other would dutifully laugh until the tears came. Old “FIVE” always made Gary fall off his chair. It occurred to her she could make up a macabre version of this game using numbers to replace argument patterns she and Stan had developed together. At any point in the beginning stages of discord such as the present, one or the other of them could simply shout, for instance, “FOUR!” and understood to both would be her stupidity, and his failure to explain in any given
situation. She unrolled her hair, although the curls were not set, and thought of three more distinct dispute patterns they might reduce to numbers for the new game.
Stan called from the bathroom.
“Hey, Babe. Nothing to say? What are you doing in there?”
She gathered up the parts of the dryer, rolled the cord neatly and placed it in the
bonnet, and deposited the pile in the wastebasket by the door.
Maybe it was the heat, she thought; for now she ha nothing to say.
The parade of the beautiful woman stopped them on their way to an early dinner, about five minutes after its formation in the barrio of St. John.
In the vanguard were a dozen girls from the altar society of the church. They must be what drum majorettes and drill teams were to the parades back home, thought Cynthia, but absent were the insane grins and flailing limbs of that breed. Each young girl walked barefoot and with elegance, balancing on her head a brilliant lacquered gourds brimming with hibiscus and palmy ferns. They wore light skirts made from colored prints, salmon and cerise and saffron and apple green. At their hems were wide, pleated flounces, starched and snow-white and repeated in the ruffles on their headdresses. This headwear, in fact, was magical, according to the explanation of the other spectators. Cynthia’s high school Spanish served her well and she was able to translate to Stan: in a disastrous shipwreck off nearby Salina Cruz, all were lost save a tiny white child who wore a fancy dress, edged in white lace at the neckband and the hem. The little girl was pulled from the surf by a Tehuana woman, who thought the child must have miraculous powers to survive such a catastrophe. To attract some of this lucky
power to herself, the woman wore the child’s dress over her head, her leathered face surrounded by its neckline. Soon every woman in Tehuantepec had copied the half-holy fashion, right down to the now-useless sleeves. For the fiesta, the young girls parade in their magic livery.
Ten minutes before, Cynthia could think of nothing but a fresh fish dinner and peacemaking with Stan. They had been rocky together since they entered this hot, dusty town. She had intended to accomplish the undertaking on a nice terrace over red snapper in a sauce of onions and tomatoes, some white wine, and an hour of small talk. They did eat so well together.
But on her mission of re-stabilization, on her way back to the balance she was accustomed to maintaining, Cynthia was waylaid by this parade of beautiful women which literally blocked her path. She was entranced by the wave of round browned faces frame in stark white coronets, and even Stan was glad to stop and watch.
“Lucky to stumble over this,” he said.
There was no way to cross the road until after the parade had passed, and Stan was pragmatic.
“Not something you’ll see every day, I’ll bet.”
Between the girls and the body of the parade marched an old man who blew intricate melodies on a bamboo lute. The man and the child who walked beside him were obviously related both in the likeness of their features and in their grave demeanor. Around the boy’s neck hung a turtle-shell drum, which he beat with short, sturdy sticks.
Cynthis did not join the parade voluntarily. One moment she was watching the women of the barrio coming down the road, singing and throwing paper streamers and
chunks of coconut candy into the line of spectators. They marched a hundred strong, and when about a dozen had passed she felt herself at once pushed from the line of watchers and pulled by the large brown arms of some women in the parade itself. There was no question of her resisting; the men and children on the sidelines closed up the place where she had stood and the women in the parade made room for her in the approximate center of a line that varied from five to eight abreast. Several offered her drink from mescal bottles held aloft in one hand. She accepted and drank from what looked like an over- sized thimble. She tipped the thimble and almost choked – the stuff was home brew and much stronger than she expected. After a few shots – she realized at once it would have been a grave breach of courtesy to refuse anyone – she no longer wondered what had become of Stan. The town was small and he would find her where the shouting died down.
All around the town the women marched in flowered skirts, their bare feet padding the soft earth of the road. Some wore comic hats, or garish pink sunglasses with striped frames which they perched on their foreheads, or paper masks of Bugs Bunny and Nurse Nancy suspended around their necks by elastic string. One proud matron sported a bright blue plastic airplane on her breast. Some frustrated shipping clerk back in civilization, thought Cynthia, is at this moment trying to locate a load of junk toys which could nowhere be doing better service than in this procession. She herself wore a Dandy Doctor Dan stethoscope, and someone had crowned her with a gaudy round of laurel leaves and Dentyne gum wrappers.
From barrio to barrio they marched, stopping in front of each church while one of their number dance in ceremony. The man and the boy played their instruments, and
paper lanterns in the shapes of a huge fish and woman in gala dress capered high above the crowd on bamboo poles. The parade was not an orderly one; lines didn’t stay straight, participants dropped in and out at whim, bawdy remarks and gentle barbs were hurled between women a dozen rows apart. But at sunset, on the way back to their home barrio of St. John, the chanting began, and the rest of the route was happy ritual.
As long as the chanting was in Spanish, Cynthia could respond with the requisite, “VIV A!”
“Viva St. John!” one woman shouted.
“VIVA!” shouted the others, waving their bottles and palm branches.
“Viva St. Matthew!” shouted another.
“Viva the meat-selling women!”
“Viva the men who catch our shrimp!”
But when the women slipped into their own Indian tongue, which they did more
and more as the night came on and the bottles emptied, Cynthia could not respond like the others, for she couldn’t even imitate the odd sounds of that language. So she answered, “VIVA!” to every shouted remark and the women laughed and loved her for it.
A huge canopy covered the street over the fiesta area, naked light bulbs and twists of colored streamers hung from corner to corner in a giant X. Delicate paper cutwork draped the corner poles and decorated the table where the men of the barrio collected
donations and held counsel during the evening. Doors of private homes opened onto the street under the canopy, so that the very old and the very young could join in the fiesta from their beds, or their tiny, three-legged stools. From these rooms came more light: the jumping flames of candles, the pastel glare of bare bulbs on rose and aqua plaster, the steady red of vigil lights flicking yellow on the chins of table-top Virgins. The old man helped the boy loose the leather straps on his drum, and the two musicians sat together and rested.
The primary strains of the music – the flute, the drum, the chants – gave way to music for dancing. The record player took only big 78’s, but the discs themselves were well-preserved and the needle was sharp. They were rented from the barrio of Santa Maria, which provided the service throughout the village for a small fee at birthdays, christenings, weddings and fiestas such as tonight’s. A cordon of men from Santa Maria attended their barrio’s precious investment. One of them carefully remove a record from its brown slip case and placed it on the turntable. Another turned a knob and lifted the needle onto the revolving disc. The loudspeaker crackled and hummed and finally spit out the very loud performance of a marimba band from Vera Cruz.
Stan stood with the men at the long table on the darker side of the street. He had been under the canopy long enough to toast many copas to the health, wealth and beauty of the local villagers by the time the last of the parade arrived at the fiesta. He saw his wife among the stragglers, she and a native woman supporting a flushed crone who still tipped for the dregs of the mescal as she stumbled into a folding chair. Depositing their charge, Cynthia and the other woman embraced each other and laughed the job-well-one laugh as they parted.
“Hey, over here! Here I am!” Stan shouted.
Cynthia was jubilant, weaving in and out among the streamers, the children and the women who had already started to dance. He assumed she must be lost and looking for him.
“Over here, Honey!”
She heard, she paused, she looked across to the dark side and stared. For a moment she did not know him. He stood in front of the table where the husbands and fathers and brothers and sons stationed themselves to drink and talk while their women celebrate their fiesta. He was taller than the other men, his skin paler and his shirt blue plaid instead of coarse white. These other men didn’t look at her, did not even concern themselves with the activity on the other side of the street. But this man, there was something in his eyes directed at something outside her and around her. He was walking toward her now not as if drawn by the beam in her eye which came from deep inside the Cynthia of her but as if he owned the whole lonely package and was coming to reclaim it from the bin of other packages into which his own had been accidentally tossed.
This was Stan coming.
Had she been a manila envelope she could not feel more as if she were about to be gingerly swept up and tucked under that efficient arm and taken away to the next place.
The mescal and the music had put Stan in fiesta spirit. He hugged her and led her, his fingertips on her shoulder, to a place where they watched the dancers.
“Why don’t we get out there and dance with them?” he said finally.
The prospect horrified her. She felt the inevitable drop that follows any prolonged high, and the warm buzz of the liquor had turned to dizziness. She remembered they never did get to dinner.
“I thought we were going to eat,” she said, holding on to the back of one of the folding chairs. She felt faint.
But Stan continued to stare at the dancers, swaying back and forth in their long skirts with many underskirts, most of them dancing with other women. Cynthia wondered that they could appear so seductive when one could not even see the outline of their hips, could not tell where the thigh down-shaped into the knee, could not tell where the thigh down-shaped into the knee, could only once in awhile glimpse a brown ankle as the women move with slow, close steps. No discotheque performer, writhing mini- skirted and braless, could ever reveal so much about a woman’s body as these fully clothed Indians did.
Seductive they were, these Tehuanas, sensuous and vital, guarding the life and heat of their race, and celebrating their guardianship in this dance, half sacred, half profane.
She could not picture herself and Stan in their white Levi’s and broad Americans grins two-stepping it with such a group.
“Maybe…,” she stalled. “I mean, I don’t think you can just go out there and dance. Maybe you have to be asked.”
At that moment, a group of young people, four girls and a boy, surrounded them. The youngsters were making an overture, but each time their leader, a gaily dressed
Tehuana of about sixteen, attempted to speak to Cynthia, they would break into giggles and nervous twitterings in their own Indian tongue.
Finally the young girl composed herself by throwing back her head and clutching Cynthia’s wrist with both her own braceleted hands, and said in halting Spanish, “I am Marta.”
The girl smiled broadly and one of her front teeth flashed as gold as the oval rings which pierced her ears.
Stan looked at his wife over the top of the young Indians’ heads.
“I think we’ve got our invitations,” he said.
Several people watched them now, and Cynthia was embarrassed and confused.
Painfully, she dredged up her Spanish.
“Mucho gusto, Marta. What a beautiful dress you are wearing.”
Giggles from the young gallery and a group smile from the old women who
watched from the chairs. The men from Santa Maria were changing records and the Tehuanas who had been dancing stopped to fan themselves, to take a drink of lemon water or perhaps of something stronger. They had a long night before them.
Marta seemed to speak for her friends as well as for herself.
“Will you dance?” she asked.
Cynthia’s embarrassment was acute. Marching through the streets chanting and
laughing and partaking in a general comaraderie was one thing; but this dancing! One was so…noticeable. She grasped for any idea which might free her from the situation without losing face for this eager child who stood before her, and which would not
diminish herself in the eyes of these women with whom she had paraded and for whom she felt respect.
She fell back on thirty years of her own cultural experience and said, “Surely, Marta, such a pretty girl as you would rather dance with this handsome young man than with me.”
She nodded at Stan, who was eager to take up the offer.
“He wants to take part in your fiesta and would like to dance with you.”
Stan was stopped short by the most cursory of glances from the young people. Marta continued as if she thought Cynthia had not heard her correctly.
“I am Marta. Will you dance?”
Cynthia found herself being pushed through the rows of chairs and onto the dance
area. Already the music had started and couples were dancing around them. Tall women, unfashionably large and dressed in ensembles oblivious to color-coordination, stepped toward their partners and away again, the movement coming from the hips down. Sometimes they danced with downcast eyes, sometimes they stared boldly at the other dancers or the spectators. Around their necks they wore their wealth: heavy gold chains and strings of precious coins from other lands. Men from every corner of the earth had passed through this port in the glorious days and its women were ever clever and beautiful. An infant barely able to walk swished her skirts to the music, a twenty-dollar gold piece dangling from her tiny neck. Someone had once planned to transport ships across the Isthmus on a magnificent railroad and great-grandmother was the friend of an American engineer.
For several moments, she stood in the midst of this moving opulence. Then Cynthia, a woman from Flushing with the two sweet children now at camp somewhere upstate, a woman with the bright, practical, you’re-lucky-to-have-him husband (“Gee, but you’re lucky!” they’d said, “Fire Island again for us this year.”), a woman with the secretarial skills and the B.A. in English she could always fall back on, dressed in Levis with not one jewel or ribbon, a woman who had done nothing the least bit exotic, erotic or extraordinary in her life except under the influence of the hot air blower of a G.E. hair dryer, this woman finally heard the music and began to dance.
Marta was a graceful partner, took pains to show Cynthia a special step or two, and the other women did the same. Soon she was dancing on her own, a ritual step here, a private step there. Several times she kicked up the soft dirt so she removed her shoes and danced barefoot like the others. Marta smiled at her and as the music took hold the other women did not single her out except as one more dancer whom they must touch at appropriate times, or step around, or bow to.
Gradually, Cynthia could say whatever she wanted to say with the limitless vocabulary of her body. Thoughts that had lain too deep for words, she spoke with an arm flung out, she whispered with a movement from the hips as rippling in effect as if she wore a thousand colored skirts. She an Marta held each other around the waist and circled two other women. Cynthia glimpsed desires on every paper streamer and felt in her warming body certain possibilities, nebulous now, perhaps to flower more fully in the next dance. She flowed with the music as if nothing else mattered, as if everything that did matter was centered in the movement of her own body. She imbibed the dignity of the women of this ancient race, felt they were sharing with her this dignity with every
movement of their own, and she danced to her communion with them. Once during the night she caught sight of Stan looking at her as she had never seen him look at her before, and she danced to her isolation from every other human creature. She realized them both now, isolation and communion, and she recognized a thousand other sentiments, for she could express all possibilities this night at this fiesta as her body celebrated dance after dance after dance.
The walk back to the hotel was a long one or Cynthia. Stan had become excited, watching her dance, and swept her from the circle as soon as the music stopped. He would have taken her back right away had there not been an announcement that this was the saint’s day of Doña Sefarina, of the barrio of St. John; the crowd was obliged to stay a few moments while the elderly woman was honored with song and a bouquet. Cynthia stood behind one of the folding chairs, her thumbs hooked over the top and her fingers splayed own the back of the chair. Stan leaned against her hand and she could feel him, erect and intruding between her separate fingers. He put his own fingers on the far side of her neck, and she knew he was waiting for her to return his stare. Her stomach churned and she smiled at the mouth, but she could not look back at him. Then the little ceremony was over and they walked the dark streets back to the hotel.
Later, she sweated a lot, and watched the overhead fan. For a while he tried to make it good for her, good person that he was, but she clutched the bar of the brass bestead and wondered about the precise moment she had left him. She had not been his wife for a while now. Was it during the dance? During the parade? The day the twins were born? Or was it a gradual struggle for release that began the day after their wedding
an culminated now after these hours of joyous movement with women who live as their own women? She didn’t hate him now; she realized she had always despised him in snatches, most recently on the walk back from the fiesta. But hatred had been for her an emotion based on fear and indecision. She didn’t hate him now, for now he was nothing to her but an aroused stranger using her body, maybe for the last time. There. Finished, strange young man? Thank you for trying, whatever it was you were trying there, but it didn’t take that long after all, and now you can go to sleep.
She lay awake a long time, thinking very clearly. Toward dawn, the temperature dropped a few degrees. She went to the bathroom and turned on the shower, but the fixture spit dry. She remembered the water didn’t come on until seven o’clock, so she switched the overhead fan to “low,” crawled under the sheet and went to sleep.
When Stan came back the next morning he said she’d been sleeping like a baby, he’d been up for hours, wasn’t it great last night, and “Good news! The van is all set to go. They got the part from God knows where and we’re ready to roll after breakfast.”
There are few things worse than waking from a refreshing sleep and being hit by the heat and damp of a tropical day already well advanced toward noon. One feels like rolling over and starting all over again. Together, the jolt of Stan’s announcement and the waves of stifling heat made Cynthia turn over like a patient in pain who tries to crawl back into receding anesthesia. She held fast to her semi-conscious state as long as possible.
“Come on, Sweetheart, up and at ‘em. You can get the things together while I take care of the bill.”
Stan tore out the sectional maps of the route they had covered for the past few days from the spiral notebook the triple A had prepared in Flushing. The scraps landed in the wastebasket on top of her old hair dryer.
“Hey! Are you asleep?” he said, jocular and happy to be on the way again.
Cynthia sat up slowly, propping a pillow behind her. She threw back her hair an shook her head from side to side like someone just come up from under water.
He turned to her before he opened the door.
“Did you hear me, Babe? We’re on our way! The next place…”
“I’m not going,” she interrupted.
Calm and sure, Cynthia rubbed the sleep from her eyes but did not yawn. “What?”
“I am not going with you,” she said again.
“Now listen, Sweetheart,” he laughed, and pointed toward the bathroom. “Get
yourself a shower and wake up. You’re talking like you want to spend the rest of our vacation in this dump!”
He laughed again, but did not move to open the door.
Finally, Cynthia got out of bed and dressed in a light tunic she’d bought in the market. She took a few items of clothing from the suitcases and slipped them into a woven hemp bag along with her small purse, some shampoo and a toothbrush. She’d bought the bag in Oaxaca to use at the beach, but it was all she needed to carry what she would take with her.
He watched her all the time.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t want to go with me to…”
“Anywhere,” she said quite simply. “Wherever I go for awhile, I’m going slow, and I’m going alone.”
She put the hemp bag on her lap and motioned for him to sit down beside her on the bed.
But Stan saw their latest game turn into a real event and stood fast by the door.
“I don’t get it,” he said again. “When am I supposed to pick you up? Where are you going? The twins… Are you mad at something?”
“No, I’m not mad. You needn’t pick me up.”
For the first time in seven years she saw him truly bewildered; truly without a grasp of the situation, without a look, a word, an answer for what was going on around them. She felt great tenderness toward him then.
“I may go to Salina Cruz for awhile. Remember? We passed the turn-of on the way into town.”
Present him with an accomplished fact, she told herself. He can accept that. Give him a beginning and an en, even if you have to lie, for now.
“There’s a beach there. I’ll write to you and the children at home.”
So this was how it ended in real life, she thought. No rich, handsome Torvald pleading with her to be reasonable and responsible, no vows of going on searches for her self, no dramatic twisting of her gold wedding band. Instead of a raging snowstorm she opened the door to a dank blast of heat, and it was a flimsy screen door at that. Hardly worth slamming behind her.
When she passed through the market, she was startled to see that it appeared exactly as it had twenty-four hours before. Nothing had changed, yet she couldn’t say
what it was, in fact, that should have changed. One or two women nodded her way, but most were too busy at this hour to stop and talk. So soon the questions start, she thought.
So soon the doubts and reconsiderations.
A plain young girl caught her by the wrists.
“Buenos dias. Hello! Hello! Come and see my mother. We are just around the
The girl’s full apron was smeared with blood and Cynthia could not control the
instinct to jerk her hand away.
“But…you don’t know me?” The girl was almost hurt, then laughed instead and
grasped a wrist again.
“I am Marta! Ours is the meat stand around the corner!”
Cynthia barely recognized her tropical sprite of a partner from the night before. “Please come and see how we cut the fine meat. Please see where I work!” She must get on a bus to somewhere, she thought.
“I…well, I have business right now, Marta.”
She must reach that sandy patch of neutral territory where she could sort things
out at her own pace.
“Thank you for inviting me. Perhaps…”
Out of the din of the market young Marta picked out her mother’s voice calling
“Si, si. When you return then…” In a moment the ribboned braids were flying
through the crowd. Remember, the second meat stand from the corner…”
Cynthia stood still for a few moments while the buyers and sellers milled around her. She bought some fruit and a sugared waffle from a vendor. She paused at a novelties stand, and smiled at herself in a dozen mirrors at once. Then she adjusted the bag at her shoulder, crossed the street, and made her way toward the rickety bus.