Their room at the Hotel Playa Bonita turns out to be the standard smallish third floor with ocean view and two queen beds. Fortunately it is in the older section of the hotel where the balconies directly overlook the beach and the unbelievably blue water of the bay. “Which one do you want?” Michael asks his wife.
She glances at him, hesitating. “You mean the beds? This one, I guess–it’s closest to the bathroom.”
“Baño,” Michael says.
“Baño,” she repeats. “You know maybe seven or eight words of Spanish, Michael. It’s not terribly impressive.”
“Sorry,” he says. This is not starting out well.
Joan smooths her hand over the brightly colored bedspread. There was a time, he remembers, a long time ago, when he and Laurie would have ignored one of the beds, even if they had had to sleep on top of each other. Especially on top of each other.
Joan bends over the large blue suitcase and begins taking some of her panties and bras out to store them in a drawer of the heavy, ornate dresser. Michael unpacks a few of his toiletries and hangs the sport jacket and slacks in the closet but leaves most of his clothes in his own suitcase. It is his usual habit, which Joan never has understood. “That’s why they have drawers,” she used to say, but he learned long ago to tune out his wife’s pointless comments.
“We have that coupon from the travel agent for a free margarita,” he reminds her. “Two margaritas, downstairs in the Terraza. I could use at least two myself. The sun is probably over the yardarm somewhere by now.”
“You’re starting early,” she says. “I thought we agreed…”
Fuck it, he thinks, this is Mexico. “I drink, therefore I am.”
“No, that’s Descartes, slightly revised.”
She ignores him. “Can you crank up the air-conditioner? I’m streaming perspiration–must be at least eighty-five.”
“Outside, maybe. It says twenty-four Celsius,” he tells her after checking the dial on the wall.
“What’s that in the real world?”
“About seventy-five. What do you have against the metric system?”
She cocks one eye at him in that way she has when she questions his judgment. “Really, Michael,” she says. “I’m an American. What are you?”
There are only two or three other tables of people at the far end of the Terraza, next to the beach. “Dos margaritas, por favor,” he tells the waiter who appears beside them. “Muy frio.”
“Gracias, señor,” the waiter says and heads toward the bar.
Joan shakes her head. “They put ice in them, Michael–they’re bound to be cold, don’t you imagine?”
“Never hurts to ask.”
A multicolored parasail pulled by a speedboat floats high above the water, a girl’s bare legs kicking the air joyfully beneath the harness. Laurie used to do that when they were here, but it frightened him. What if the boat should run out of gas, or explode, dropping her far out in the ocean, tangled in the parasail cables. “That won’t happen,” she had said, but he was sure that sometimes it did. Safety did not seem to be high on the Mexicans’ list of priorities. The boat driver was probably high on tequila, too, if not something worse.
Michael shoos away a beach vendor who has approached their table as close as he dares. The vendor is older than Michael can imagine, his deeply lined face burned nearly black from years of trolling the tourist beachfront. He carries two huge black boards with rings, earrings, and necklaces dangling in disarray, and after backing up a step or two he again approaches the low wall separating vendors from the café’s customers. “Silver,” he says, looking at Joan. “Muy bueno.”
“Silver my ass,” Michael says, shooing the man away again.
“I thought they were pretty,” Joan says.
He stares out at the bay and the dancing ripples of late afternoon sunlight flashing on the waves. Pelicans skim a foot or so above the water, looking for food. Occasionally one sees something and dives headfirst into the water, sometimes bringing up a fish in its huge beak, sometimes nothing. Metaphor for life, Michael thinks. Far out on the horizon a ship of some kind is moving so slowly it seems to be standing still.
“When was it you were here before?” Joan asks him. Sometimes it seems she can read his mind.
“Twenty-five years ago, I guess. I was a lot younger then.”
“Everybody was a lot younger. Let’s see, Dorie wasn’t even born then, and Chad must have been about three.”
He wishes Joan wouldn’t bring up his and Laurie’s kids, especially when she has something negative to say about them which she frequently does. It doesn’t seem right, somehow. She has no children of her own and knows little about being a parent. Anyway, the whole point of this trip was to get away from the everyday stuff, wasn’t it? Stretch out in the sun. Relax. Drink.
He smiles suddenly, remembering. “There was a funny little thatched-roof restaurant on the beach that specialized in flaming desserts. One night Laurie ordered bananas flambé, and it must have been a new waiter because he poured on too much rum, way too much. He nearly burned down the restaurant–they kept running out to the ocean to bring in buckets of water. We laughed so hard we nearly puked.”
“They must have thought you were crazy.”
“Loco gringos,” he says, but when he sees that look on her face he apologizes. “Okay, I know it’s a bad habit. Mea culpa. Is Latin better?”
“Not really,” she says. “Mexicans probably don’t appreciate pidgin Spanish. Is there such a term?”
“Probably. Hey, what do you feel like for dinner? We could do El Shrimp Bucket–I liked it before.”
“I don’t care. That’s fine. I don’t seem to be very hungry.”
“You will be,” he says. “The shrimp here are terrific, right out of the ocean out there.”
“Along with the sewage and God knows what else.”
Why is she here, spoiling my mood? he wonders. He wishes he had come alone, though that wouldn’t have been possible.
After changing for dinner they decide to take one of the pulmonias down to the restaurant, the little open-sided, gas-spewing Volkswagen carts ubiquitous in Mazatlán. “This will ruin my hair,” Joan says, half seriously. In consideration of his American passengers, the driver turns down the blaring radio and asks where to. “Shrimp Bucket,” Michael says. As they pass a pretty girl on the street the driver presses a button on the dash that emits a piercing wolf whistle.
At the restaurant a smiling man greets them and Michael asks if they can sit out in the garden. “I’m sorry, señor, is not open, not for many years now,” the man says and leads them toward a table inside. It’s a small thing, really, but Michael feels disappointed.
When the waiter comes Joan orders another margarita and Michael orders a Negro Modelo, the good dark Mexican beer he likes. The waiter shakes his head. “Perdóneme, señor, only Corona and Pacifico.”
“What’s this place coming to?” he says to Joan. “No Negro Modelo, and this is Mexico where they fucking make the stuff.”
“It won’t kill you to drink something else. And keep your voice down–there’re other people here.”
Two other people, actually, which she knows as well as he. But he doesn’t argue. There’s a closed glass door at the back end of the restaurant and he remembers that there used to be a kind of tree garden and patio outside with white wrought-iron tables and chairs, a lovely place where he and Laurie had spent a long romantic evening. It obviously no longer exists, but he knows it wouldn’t be the same with Joan anyway.
Eventually the waiter brings the drinks, and with only a cursory glance at the menu Michael says, “I’d like some of those wonderful bacon-wrapped shrimp in the barbecue sauce.”
The waiter looks at him and frowns. “No, señor, nothing like that on the menu. You like maybe shrimp in garlic sauce?”
Michael shakes his head. “Christ, Joan.” And to the waiter, “Sure, shrimp in garlic, whatever.”
“I’ll have the same, please,” Joan says. “And another margarita.”
“You’ve barely started the one you have. Since when did you become a drunk?”
“I’m taking lessons from you.”
She takes a long sip of her margarita and leans back in her chair. “They don’t make these things nearly as strong as they do at Miguel’s back in Denver.”
Michael grunts. He polishes off half the bottle of cold Pacifico in one satisfying gulp and is already anticipating the next one, or maybe two. “I remember a time when one drink and you’d be under the table.”
“And I remember a time, in that la-de-da French place in Aspen, the one with the long linen tablecloths, when I actually did go under the table, briefly, but not because I was drunk. And when your zipper stuck I was so furious I nearly tipped the table over.”
“I remember,” Michael says, laughing. There had been some good times over the years since Laurie’s death, and that had been one of them. “What do you think, you want to try it now?”
Her smile fades. “No, thank you. That was a long time ago.”
“Everything’s a long time ago.”
“We’ve changed, Michael–you’ve changed, I’ve changed. Look at the wrinkles on our faces. Of course we’re not that old, really, not these days. I heard recently that Helen Wilkins had all sorts of cosmetic surgery done. Most of her body, in fact.”
Michael frowns at her. “You thinking about doing something like that?”
“I’ve thought about it.”
“So you can attract younger men? So you can go to the country club and make a hit with the tennis pro?”
“Don’t be asinine. I’d only do it for you–well, for me, actually.” She tilts her head back and downs the rest of her drink.
The shrimp when it comes, accompanied by a kind of succotash of corn, squash, and beans, is delicious. Michael orders two more Pacificos. He and Joan clean their plates and sop up the last bits with warm tortillas. They finish the meal with ice cream and cups of the good, strong Mexican coffee. After they pay the bill and go outside there are two taxis and two pulmonias waiting. “Taxi, señor?” one of the drivers asks, holding open the door of an actual enclosed taxi.
“Please, Michael,” Joan says. “It can’t cost much more.”
“Okay,” he says. As if she really cares how much anything costs. They are what people call financially comfortable. Horrible word. If you’re comfortable, he thinks, you may as well be dead.
Back at the hotel they undress and for a while sit out on the balcony wearing only the light robes they’ve brought with them. Somewhere music is playing, probably from the Terraza down below; Michael remembers that every night he and Laurie had been here a Mexican campesino band had played a mix of rock and slow ballads for dancing on the spacious tile floor, and they had danced, holding each other close, ecstatically happy with their never-ending love for each other. But it had ended, or rather Laurie ended, the cancer taking away her youth, her joy, and finally her life. The fact of her death has been unbearable now for almost twenty-five years.
Well, death isn’t a concept you can get your mind around. One day she was there, the next day she wasn’t. And then all the days after, endless days, terrible useless days without her.
Several tiny lights from fishing boats wink on and off far out on the ocean, and at intervals the beacon from El Faro, the lighthouse down at the tip of the peninsula, sweeps past. It was said to be the second highest lighthouse in the world, after Gibraltar, and he and Laurie had climbed a path to the top, laughing the whole way. But that was a long time ago.
“I wonder if I still could,” he says.
“Climb up to the lighthouse.”
She looks over at him in the semidarkness. “This trip seems to be more and more about you and Laurie, all the wonderful things you and Laurie did, and not so much about us. It pisses me off, if you want to know.”
“Actually, I don’t,” he says.
“That’s sweet,” she says bitterly. “I’m tired and I’m going to bed.”
He hears her in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and when he comes inside she’s already in bed. He looks at her lying there, naked except for a sheet she doesn’t need. One trim, tanned leg rests on top of the sheet, and despite everything he feels a beginning sexual arousal.
“Want me to sleep with you?”
“It’s so hot, Michael–I think we’ll sleep better in separate beds.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he says. He goes to brush his teeth using the bottle of purified water, and when he comes out he sees that she’s already sound asleep, snoring lightly. He turns off the lamp beside his bed, but for a long while he lies awake, thinking about the time he and Laurie were here and how different it was then. They were so much in love, like two teenagers. When either touched the other it was as though an electric current passed between them. Everything in Mexico was new and exciting–the people, the streets, the pungent smells and vivid colors everywhere–and every night and some afternoons too when they lay together in bed they had such prolonged and energetic sex that they could only lie dazed and sleepy in each other’s arms for hours.
He looks over toward the other bed again. Joan’s rhythmic breathing makes him aware of his own heart beating. How much longer do I have? he wonders. How much longer does any of us have? As Joan said, we aren’t exactly old, but the obituary columns are full of people not exactly old. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
In the morning, even with the stifling heat, they decide to walk all the way down the malecon toward the Centro. Almost immediately they are accosted by two slick young men selling condo timeshares who will not leave them alone until Michael threatens to get the police. Farther on are three toothless old women sitting on the sidewalk begging, several dirty babies beside them. One particularly pitiful-looking woman has only one leg. A four- or five-year-old boy holds out a box of Chiclets to them, and Joan reaches into her purse for a coin. “Why do you do that?” Michael says. “There’ll be a dozen others farther on just like these.” Joan looks at him sideways as she presses several coins into the child’s fat fist and shakes her head No to the chewing gum. “I’m maybe just a tad more empathetic than some people,” she says.
“I don’t see anyone else here, do you?”
It’s a long hike to the Centro–five miles, maybe six. About halfway Joan says, “We don’t have to be heroes, we can always stop somewhere,” and Michael agrees. Some distance past the Fishermen’s Monument they simply run out of energy. Michael spots a café across the street with a partly shaded patio. “Aha,” he says, “beer time.”
The patio is deserted except for a distinguished looking elderly gentleman wearing a white suit, white bow tie, and white Panama hat. The man’s mustache and Van Dyke beard, too, are white. In fact, Michael thinks, everything about him is completely white except for his deeply tanned face and a large silver-and-turquoise ring on his left ring finger.
Michael and Joan seat themselves at a shaded table. A stray dog lies panting nearby. “Look at him, Michael,” Joan says. “He looks so sad.”
“You’d take him home with us if you could, wouldn’t you? You always did have a thing for strays.”
“I found you, didn’t I?”
A young waiter comes from inside the bar and says, “Beer, amigos? Corona, Pacifico…”
Michael looks at Joan over the top of his sunglasses. “Sure, whatever,” he tells he waiter. “Pacifico.”
The old man has lit a small, thin cigar with a silver lighter and breathes out a smooth stream of smoke. In front of him is a glass half full of something icy and vaguely yellow. He raises the glass toward Joan and Michael. “Salud,” he says. The yellow liquid disappears.
When their beer comes they drink slowly, savoring the icy bite on their tongues. After a while the man in white gets up and stops by their table. “My wife Emily and I used to travel all over the world,” the man says. “Many years ago we came here and rented a small villa for what we thought would be six months. But something happened–she came down with one of those tropical diseases out of nowhere and she passed away within two weeks. She’s buried on a hill up behind the bull ring. I’ve lived here ever since. Can’t imagine leaving her.”
The old man tips his hat and slowly walks away. “Interesting old geezer,” Joan says.
“Interesting looking,” Michael says. He checks his watch. “We’d better get going.” He leaves more than enough pesos for the beer on the table and they head up the street.
At the bandshell plaza in the center of town it begins to rain and they hurry into the nearby mercado, the indoor central market covering an entire city block. They stroll through the crowded aisles, pushing past whole families of shoppers hovering around vendors offering every conceivable item of food, clothing, jewelry, household goods, leather, silver, trinkets of all kinds.
“Look at that, Michael,” Joan says, tugging at his arm. “How gross–it’s awful!
Whoever would buy such a thing?”
In an open bin of meat products, propped on a bed of shaved ice, are two pigs’ heads, skinned and pink, their eyes closed but still grotesque. Beside the heads are skinned feet and ears, probably from the same unfortunate pigs. “Everything but the squeal,” Michael says, remembering the old saying.
“There are flies on the meat, Michael. Flies.”
Since it’s obvious there’s no way Joan is going to eat anything from the mercado’s rich assortment, Michael suggests an alternative. “Let’s go across to Stone Island. They grill wonderful smoky fish with chiles in little grass-roof palapas right on the beach. And there’s ice-cold beer, from tiny refrigerators they hook up to a generator.”
“You would remember the beer,” she says.
They take a pulmonia down past the cruise ship and ferry docks and then take one of the outboard launches for the ten-minute trip across to Isla de la Piedra. Almost immediately on the other side Michael sees how different things are this time. Condo and apartment developments loom everywhere, and when they reach the ocean beach there are only many large open-air restaurants plastered with advertising. They eat tasteless tacos in one of them, and while they finish their beers Michael watches a Mexican wrangler leading tourist horses slowly across the wide beach. He remembers Laurie, wearing only a bikini, riding a white horse bareback, galloping freely for miles along the sand. Some government regulation probably keeps the tourists ultra-safe now, even from themselves.
After their disappointing lunch they cross back to the mainland and wander Mazatlán’s downtown area. The historically ornate Angela Peralta theater is closed, but a nearby anthropological museum is open and they go inside.
“Such an interesting history, and they seem so proud of it,” Joan says, pausing at one of the exhibits depicting the ancient Aztec way of life. “I suspect most Americans don’t know nearly as much about our history.”
“And they don’t much care, either.”
In one of the rooms an elegantly dressed young woman smiles at Michael with what he imagines is an incredibly inviting smile before moving on. He watches her leave, watches her bare suntanned legs, the high heels, the way she moves with a certain casualness and self-assurance that he finds terribly attractive. She reminds him of Laurie.
“Did you want to fuck her right here?” Joan says.
Surprised, Michael feigns innocence. “Don’t be stupid, Joan.”
But the question is, would he ever make love to a woman other than Joan? He never has, not in all these years of marriage. Fidelity, he wonders, or just lethargy? They have sex only sporadically, and even when they do there doesn’t seem to be much heart in it. Too much day in, day out familiarity, maybe, or maybe just the natural consequence of old age.
The museum is in the southern part of the downtown area, close to the base of the lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula. “What do you think?” he asks Joan, pointing up at the high winding path to the top that he and Laurie climbed rather easily that time, as he remembers it.
Sweat is dripping from under Joan’s sunglasses, the ones with little chrome hearts at the corners that he dislikes. “I’m hot and I’m tired and right now I couldn’t climb that fucking hill if my life depended on it,” she tells him. “Some other time, Charley–-all I want now is a shower and a lie-down before dinner.” She sometimes calls him “Charley” when she’s particularly stressed about something, though he’s never figured out why.
“I’m tired too,” he says. “Getting old is a bitch, isn’t it?” But she ignores him as though she hasn’t heard.
Michael has made dinner reservations at Casa Loma, a fine family-owned restaurant several blocks north of the main tourist area. After Mexican vodka martinis and huge shrimp cocktails, they share an elegant pork entrée, and end with flan for dessert along with steaming cups of café diablo made with Mexican brandy, Kahlua, and cream. “I remember bringing back Kahlua in bottles shaped like Aztec gods. We were only allowed one bottle each, but we smuggled in some brandy and vodka too, wrapped in our dirty underwear. Can you imagine trying to smuggle anything through U.S. Customs these days? They would just shoot me, probably.”
“Poor Michael and his alcohol problems,” Joan says.
“My husband is a drunk who thinks only of another woman,” she says to a passing waiter, who obviously doesn’t understand.
After dinner they walk the nine or ten blocks back to their hotel. The night is gorgeous, the sky overloaded with stars in a way they never see them in Denver. As if to confirm Joan’s bitchy statement Michael says, “What do you think about a brandy in the Terraza?”
“If that’s what you want. Thank God we don’t have to drive anywhere.”
Luckily a table by the ocean wall is empty, and a waiter takes their order. A band is playing on the little stage, fronted by a young girl singer belting out some dolorous Mexican ballad as though her heart might break before the song ends. Several couples are dancing across the tile floor, and impulsively Joan asks Michael if he wants to join them.
“We haven’t danced in years, Joan. We’ll look like idiots.”
“So what? We’re tourists–we’re supposed to look like idiots.”
On the dance floor they attempt to accommodate themselves to the music, but it presently seems too strange and awkward. They give up in the middle of the second song and return to their table. “Brandy’s better then dancing anyway,” Michael says, eyeing the two small snifters that have been left for them on the table.
“Easier, that’s for sure,” she says. Absently she downs about half the brandy in her glass in one gulp, as though that’s something she’s been doing all her life instead of just in the last few years.
After breakfast the next morning they wander in and out of several touristy shops in the Golden Zone where Joan buys a few souvenirs and postcards for friends. Michael gets Dorie a shell necklace and matching plush iguanas for her twins. He can’t think of anything Chad would want and settles for an onyx letter opener.
Over Joan’s objection they eat fish tacos from a sidewalk stand and then take a pulmonia to the aquarium. Inside, a giant shark is circling the main tank. There’s a female attendant wearing scuba gear in the tank with him, feeding some kind of food to the other fish. Joan shudders. “Why on earth doesn’t the shark eat her? There’s not enough money in the world to pay me to do that.”
Michael asks an attendant what time the outdoor dolphin show starts, but the attendant shakes her head. “No shows this week,” she says. “Maybe next week.”
“Always mañana, or next week, or never,” Michael says. “Why can’t things stay the same?”
“We haven’t,” Joan says.
Outside on the main avenue Michael hails a taxi. The sun nearly blinds him and seems to make the sidewalk rise up in threatening waves. “I don’t feel well at all,” he tells Joan. “I’m really, really tired.”
She searches his face. “I hope you’re not saying you’re tired of me.”
What an odd thing to say, Michael thinks. He starts to say something, but then doesn’t, and only shakes his head.
Although the air-conditioner in their room is barely making a difference, both of them want a nap. But sleep, Michael finds, eludes him. “You awake?” he eventually calls over to Joan in her bed.
“I don’t know. I can’t sleep either. I apologize for my bad temper earlier–I think the heat is getting to me.”
“Me too,” Joan says. She sits up in bed. “Michael, I know we’ve paid for another two days, but I was just thinking…we aren’t having much fun, are we?”
“No, not much,” he agrees. “What if I go down to the lobby in a minute and see whether the concierge can change our flight to tomorrow morning instead?”
“Please. Even if it costs more.”
“It will, but we don’t care.”
Changing the flight turns out to be surprisingly easy. After martinis on their balcony, watching the sun set brilliantly orange just to the right of Deer Island across the bay, they have their final Mazatlán dinner at a place where he and Laurie were so terribly in love before. The Sheik is an out-of-this-world restaurant architecturally, its white towers and swooping lines resembling nothing so much as a Moorish castle, something out of the Arabian Nights. It is by far the most romantic restaurant in town. He is vaguely aware what a bad idea this is.
The restaurant is virtually empty. The waitress takes a long time getting to the table they’ve chosen outside on the balcony, and after taking their order for blue margaritas she seems not to care whether she ever sees them again. There is a breeze from the bay and Joan shivers. Her dress is thin and glamorous but he’s wearing a poplin sport coat. He takes off the jacket and slips it over her bare shoulders, and she smiles at him gratefully. For a moment it seems as though things will be all right.
“Cheers,” Michael says after the waitress finally brings the margaritas laced with blue curaçao.
“To us,” Joan says, their usual toast.
Us, Michael thinks. But the wrong us. “And to the vast difference twenty-five years can make,” he says, instantly regretting his words. “Let’s never come here again.”
“You mean the restaurant?”
“No, I mean Mazatlán. It’s too sad, too destructive.”
The pain in her face is obvious. “Look, Michael, what can I say? I’m sorry about Laurie. I’m sorry I can’t be Laurie for you. But I can’t. You must know that.”
After a depressing silence Michael says, “I know that. You’re Joan. You’re my wife. I love you, as much as I can.”
“You know how great that makes me feel? Bastard.”
“Sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean…” But in fact he knows he did mean it.
“Anyway, it’ll be good to get back home, back to normal.”
“Normal,” she repeats, acknowledging the banality of the word.
Joan is standing beside her bed, the thin robe only partly covering her breasts. “Do you want to sleep over here tonight?” she asks him. “It’s our last night in Mazatlán and we haven’t had sex since we got here. Make love to your wife, Michael, even if you have to pretend.”
Surprised, he says, “You’re right, it’s our last night.”
He undresses and crawls into the bed beside her now naked body. As he begins to touch her breasts the way she likes he feels, inexplicably, as though he should ask Laurie to leave the room, wait outside in the hallway until he and his wife have completed their private ritual of what passes for love in married life. He can almost see her standing there, watching them.
After a while he stops, though neither of them has reached orgasm. Joan rolls over on her side away from him. “Maybe if you didn’t drink so much you’d be able to get it up like a real man,” she says.
“Not the problem,” he says, “but it’s the thought that counts.”
He moves over to the other bed and sits there in the dark, listening for Joan to begin snoring. He remembers the vodka bottle is on the dresser, knows he can find it without turning on a light. He can hardly wait for the pleasant, almost sexual sensation when the vodka touches his lips and Laurie, smiling, will come to him.
Among Lawrence Dunning’s published works of fiction are the novels Fallout! and Taking Liberty. A collection of his short stories–Rondo and Fugue for Two Pianos–was published in 2012. The collection included some of his more than 30 individual stories published in literary journals such as The Virginia Quarterly Review (story included in Eric Clapton’s Lover and Other Stories from the Virginia Quarterly Review), The Carolina Quarterly, Rio Grande Review, High Plains Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and The MacGuffin. Two of his stories were named in the Best American Short Stories annual list of 100 best stories, and three of them have won Colorado Authors’ League awards. He lives in Denver, Colorado.