Icelanders believe in Huldufólk—hidden people—supernatural, mythical beings that live high in the craggy, green bluffs that circle the sky and alongside the tumbling, icy streams that meander through mossy flatlands that lead to the sea. Appearing and disappearing just out of the corner of your eye, elves, fairies, trolls, and ghosts look and behave like humans and enter and depart a person’s life leaving a faint mark only the wearer can see. The mark they leave, you ask? It is a pointer—the direction in which to go.
Although my Nancy Drew heart beats fast at the thought of tripping over an elf who impudently steps in my way, it is not I who will bear the mark when we leave Iceland, I believe it will be my daughter, SarahKate.
SarahKate invited me to accompany her on the first leg of her three-week journey through Iceland, Scotland, England, Amsterdam, Norway, and Denmark. She is in that in-between place that some of us experienced in our youth—momentarily free from responsibilities and brave enough to embrace the unknown.
I see her clearly at moments on this trip—the stubborn little girl who hated to wear shoes—and then she wavers out of my sight when her eyes gaze far out into the sea and I have no idea where she has gone. Unlike my boys who are…well, boys…SarahKate is introspective, loyal, and to be perfectly honest, somewhat of an Eeyore (the donkey from Winnie the Pooh). If there is a cloud in the sky, she will point it out.
We have switched places. I refuse to drive; there is no need to be criticized for something I know I am barely competent at. At the rental car place, they warned us that car doors can get caught in an Icelandic wind gust and tear from their hinges. Now each time I go to open the car door, she peers over the top of her glasses as if I am a teenager and warns me to “watch out for the wind.” Yet, when she spots a humungous waterfall from the road, it is I who says, “are you sure?” We return to the car waterlogged wishing we hadn’t spent so much time on our hair that morning. While in Vik, a lovely village adjacent to a black sand beach, I feel an oozing wetness trickle down my calf and discover a rope burn from Sibby’s leash has burst open. Her face blanching at the sight of the mess and my grimace of pain, SarahKate hustles like a parent and talks to a local woman who tells her to take me to an unmarked clinic high on a green hill where a kind doctor applies a burn patch and bandages me up. I feel comforted and safe with my daughter at the helm.
We have merged our pictures through Air Drop and, although it appears seamless which are hers and which are mine, there is a freshness and an eagerness in her photos while I feel mine look still and staged. I realize that, although she came from me almost twenty-nine years ago, she has cut the last tether and is leaving on a road of her choosing.
The hidden people of Iceland are known to cause mischief, speak in the wind, and drop trinkets at the feet of the unsuspecting. Tomorrow SarahKate will get a new tattoo that symbolizes who she is grounded and whole and who she will be in the unknown world that lies ahead. My reasons for finding the hidden people are different from hers—I want to catch them by their sleeves and hold them fast, while my darling, Eeyore daughter would say to them “climb aboard and come with me.”
I married Larry, the high school typing teacher, in a field dotted with bison on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana. There is no record of our marriage other than the witnesses that stamped their feet on the frozen grass, but the place where we stood was crowded with lost souls who were forgotten by time but not by Larry.
In the mid-1990s I worked for the federal government as an education researcher helping school districts implement grants. My laptop computer weighed fourteen pounds and needed an external modem to access the world wide web; I did not have a cell phone, Google Maps, or anything else. I was divorced with two small children, and I cobbled together overnight babysitting stints when I traveled. I look back on it now, and I don’t know how I managed it. It felt like I carried the two of them, one on each hip, across a tight rope without a net to catch us if we fell. Each time I took off on an airplane, I only cared about the number of hours it would take for me to arrive home. I was headed to Browning, Montana for a one-day meeting. Thirty-six hours. What could happen?
The little plane was shaped like a bullet with silver domed walls and ceiling. We bent in half to enter the doorway and, when I passed the cockpit, it looked like a scene from the movie, Apollo 13 with bald men intent on their papers, maps, switches, and dials. There were ten seats on each side of the plane, which meant we all had window seats, however, the luxury ended there. Drinks were served by shoving a container of beer and soda down the aisle to the next person.
Somewhere between Spokane and Great Falls, we heard a thud and a crushing whine, and the air beneath the plane dropped away like a roller coaster ride. My stomach flew up and bounced against my throat. Bile sloshed in my mouth. It felt gritty, like sand. I gulped it back. I jerked my head to look over my shoulder out the window. Black smoke was streaming from the right-side engine. Its propeller was still. The flight attendant backed into her seat and pulled the straps over her head. Her eyes were huge, and she puffed air out between her lips in little bursts almost like she was in childbirth. “Tighten your seatbelts,” she squawked.
“Folks, we are in an emergency. We have been cleared to land in Missoula. Listen to your flight crew. This is for everyone’s safety. We will be exiting from the back of the plane. Now,” I imagined him squeezing the controls, “please lean over and grasp your knees.” “The ground was rising rapidly to meet us, a wide swatch of white foam covered the runway, and two fire engines, lit with red and white pulsing lights, waited for us.
We landed hard. I realized why we had to grasp our knees. A woman a few seats up who wasn’t grasping her knees rose like a balloon and smacked against the ceiling. The whole plane bounced in the air and hit the ground again. I could hear every nut and bolt groaning as they strained to hold on to one another. The fire retardant whooshed up the windows like the plane was in the middle of a car wash where everyone is ghostly green, and the world is suspended in the center of a soap bubble.
As my nineteen fellow passengers raced to the bank of public phones to call their loved ones, I walked to the rental car desk. “Can I get a car, please? I’m going to Browning. I’ll return it to Great Falls tomorrow.” My fingers trembled as I handed the woman my credit card. She tilted her head towards the lines at the phones. “I don’t have any anyone to call,” I said and slid the keys off the countertop.
That wasn’t exactly true. I could have called my parents, but while I was crying on my end of the phone, they would have been gazing out on the sparse landscape of the Arizona desert waving a silent hello to their neighbors in their golf carts. They lived in two worlds, and I tried not to intercede during their respite time. They helped with the babysitting during the summer when they were back in the Northwest, but I was on my own during the chilly, rainy, god-awful months of winter. My ex-husband was gone—on a ship to the Antarctic, camping out in a friend’s place in Half-Moon Bay, showing up a couple of times of year acting like I should have saved a seat for him at the holiday table. My marriage had been terrible, but I consoled myself that I had been half of something that when together was whole—until it was less than half when it was over.
My suitcase retrieved, I sat in the tiny Toyota Corolla, a comical clown-size rental car, flipping the map of Montana in ninety degree turns trying to figure out how to get to my destination. I used my finger and thumb to pinch across the map using the scale at the bottom as my ruler. I put the car in gear and gunned it. “Browning, here I come.” I took Highway 93 took me north of Missoula and climbed into the Rocky Mountains. I urged the protesting little car on, flattening my foot on the gas pedal and grinding it ruthlessly to the floor. Twilight was replaced by night by the time I sped past the town of St. Ignatius and the straight road changed to hairpin turns. The tiny sullen car and I traveled 223 miles together, and the gas tank marker wobbled at less than a half a tank in the bleak light of the dashboard. I shake my head now. What an idiot. Why didn’t I turn around and go back to Portland and just tell my boss I was in a plane crash? I was thirty. That’s the only answer I can give you.
I slowed as I reached the edge of Browning. A billboard advertised “Browning Pencil Company. You Can’t Erase Us.” A devilish little cartoon boy was pictured holding a huge pencil against a scroll of paper. Faded and curled, the advertisement was falling off the board in strips. White painted letters covered the top. “Closed Now. Thanks for 50 years of Business.” Everyone needed a pencil. Why was Browning erased?
There was a main street with a blinking yellow light, a bar with a half-lit neon sign that was missing the “C” in front of the oors, and a concrete block hotel with a rolling lidded drawer where I slid my credit card to a silent woman who used the carbon machine to make my receipt. She didn’t look up when I asked her about a place to eat. She pointed over her shoulder.
“oors it is,” I mumbled to myself.
“What’s good?” I asked as I pulled my fingers away from the sticky, plastic menu.
“Burger.” Gladys, the waitress, chomped her gum and stared at me. The roots of her bangs were sprayed so stiff they erupted from her forehead like a fountain.
“Burger it is then,” I sighed. “I’d like it well done, please.”
“Yep.” She vanished.
I looked around the restaurant. Five cowboys hunched over their beer at the bar, their dirt-encrusted boots hooked around the legs of the stools, their wrangler jeans tight at the crotch. One at a time they glanced over their shoulders at me. I sank into the torn plastic sanctuary of the booth.
Thankfully, my burger arrived, steaming on an overflowing platter of French fries. I lifted the bun. The meat was bright red—so red I pulled back. Jesus Lord, I thought. “Miss? Gladys?” I said faintly. “I thought I ordered it well done?”
“You did,” she said shortly. “You haven’t had bison before, have you?”
Bison. Bison. “Isn’t it kind of like buffalo?” I whispered.
“Lady, do you want your burger or not?” Her voice was loud and carried to the men at the bar.
“Yes, everything is fine. Thank you.” I covered the burger with a pile of napkins and slid it next to the ketchup and jam holder. I inhaled the French fries and wondered what the motel vending machine might hold.
When I stood up to leave, the familiar strains of Glen Campbell’s song, the “Rhinestone Cowboy,” floated out of the hidden speakers. I closed my eyes and remembered 7th grade choir. I sang in a small group with Tommy Owens, a hunk of a boy who lived three streets away and played touch football in the street as I rode my bike past his house ten times a day. Our little group wore wide-bottomed white jeans, long-sleeved white shirts, cravats, and white cowboy hats my mother was tasked to find. I swayed back and forth to the music as I waited to pay my bill.
“Rhinestone cowboy, bum, bum,” I crooned quietly. Then I was startled out of my memories of 1979 when I felt a hand grab a large portion of my rear end.
“Want to dance?” I turned and recoiled as one of the guys at the bar released my buttock and moved his hand to my waist. “I saw you dancing.”
“No,” I tried to pull my arm away. His teeth were stained a shiny brown varnish. His shirt had not been washed for a long time. The stench of bison burger hovered around him like a cloud.
His hand tightened. “Come on now,” he jeered in my ear. “Dance with me, Honey.”
Gladys stomped from behind the cash register, her sprayed bangs aloft in a storm. “Norman. Knock it off. She said she didn’t want to dance. Leave her alone.” The other four men stood up and leaned back against the counter.
“Gladys, shut up.” Norman’s grip tightened on my arm.
Gladys grabbed my other arm. “Norman?”
“What’s going on out here?” A cook emerged from the kitchen. Raw. crimson bison juice covered his white apron. As Gladys and Norman began to argue with the cook, I jerked away from both of them, threw a ten on the counter and ran out the door. It slammed behind me, its bells jangling against the frame. Panting, I dashed across the street to the miserable motel. I dropped my purse letting everything rain onto the ground while my hands patted the concrete feeling for my door key. I lay awake all night, fully clothed, shivering in the chill air. I got up to check the lock on the window and the chain across the door. I wondered how my children were asleep in their Toy Story sleeping bags on my neighbor’s living room floor.
During this time in my life, I prided myself on my professional attire. Realizing it was Montana and not quite spring, I wore a navy, wool pantsuit instead of a skirt. I held the line, however, on my shoes. Sling back, kitten shoes with a tiny 2-inch platform heel gave my 5-foot-tall frame a bit of height and shaped my calves better than flats. Climbing into the clown car, I set my lips in a firm line and floored it out of the motel parking lot. This day was going to end with me putting my kids to bed.
I drove fast on Highway 2. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to the school. The car was facing a set of mountains that erupted from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. According to the infamous map that got me from Missoula to Browning, the two mountains, Chief Mountain and Rising Mountain, were the two sharp and pointed peaks facing me. They were covered in snow, and it was hard to see where they parted. The only indicator of their separateness was the intense blue of the sky between the two of them. They were beyond the Going-to-Sun Road which was the turn off to the Pre-K-12 grade Blackfoot Reservation School, my work location for the day.
I left the highway and turned onto a gravel road. Children ambled in pairs and small groups and moved slowly towards the school in the distance. Little girls tossed their long hair in the wind and the boys hitched up their pants as they scuffled along in shoes missing their shoelaces. I didn’t notice the speed bump until I was almost on top of it. I tensed as my car’s front bumper hit the ground while the car’s back end hung in the air. To my right was fencing around a wide field with clumps of brown grass sticking up from piles of snow. I squinted. Leaning over the wire close to my car was a group of large animals. I thought they were cows, but, given their tall, curved horns and broad bodies, I realized they were bison. Eight bison to be exact. Eight bison all leaning against a sagging wire fence that strained at their bulk.
Their breath came out in frozen clouds. Taller than elk and moose, wide as grizzlies, and smarter than cows, the bison leaned precipitously close to my car searching for the small, tender green stalks emerging on the side of the road. Their eyes were vacant. I sat with my hands on the wheel. How many people see bison up close? They were behind a fence. I kicked open the clown car door. I carried a disposable camera in my briefcase for moments like this.
I shuffled towards the group my little kitten heels slipping on the icy road. I held my camera up and positioned the group in the tiny, blurry view finder. The bison had moist, black nostrils and matted, poodle-thick hair that grew from their ears across their broad heads. Click. I held my finger down to make sure the picture was perfect. While I wound the film to the next picture, I heard hooved-feet scrabble at the edge of the road. I pulled the camera down and came face to face with a bison so close I noticed his eyelashes curled back against his fur in ringlets. He drew in a breath and huffed at me with a whoosh. Strings of snot and mucus slapped against my hair and face. I felt it drip down my chest where my suit parted on the sides of my blouse. He heaved up another breath, and I scrambled around the car. The next blow of bison boogers hit the passenger side window. I got in the car waving my hands around too disgusted to touch my face and clothes. I finally wiped the gunk all over the fabric seat next to me.
The bison snot smelled of grass, poop, and a smell I couldn’t identify—something internal, primordial, and guts-like. I looked in the rearview mirror, and it looked like I had a glossy, facial mask applied to my cheeks to improve the elasticity of my skin. I put the car in gear and flew over the speed bump scraping the back bumper this time. I didn’t pause as I sailed past the children who were still moseying towards the school building.
An hour later, with wet circles staining the front of my silk blouse and hair glued to my forehead, I was ensconced in the school cafeteria where 18 teachers spanning grades kindergarten through 12th-grade sat on the uncomfortable lunchroom benches. I went through slide after slide of examples for using the grant money. I proposed portfolios, a collection of evidence including assignments, interviews, and self-reflections about student learning. After several hours with a break for lunch, I turned on my kitten heels and asked if anyone had questions. I waited for a hand, two hands. There was none. Hurt, I turned to pack up my briefcase, and the school principal came to me.
“Thank you,” she ventured. “It takes us some time to process information and think about our children and their learning styles. Do you have a little more time to spend with us today?”
“Yes, I do have a bit more time. I have to leave for the airport by 3:00 at the latest. I have children waiting at home for me. You know how it is.” I laughed lightly pretending it was no big deal.
“Oh, you don’t have family to care for them?” she asked. Her hair was a sleek, shiny black and pulled back into a simple bun at the nape of her neck. She wore jeans, boots, and a warm black sweater.
“No. Not this time of year.” We stood looking at one another, and I was suddenly jealous of her. She likely didn’t feel the thread unspooling as it sailed back towards her untethered children. My biggest fear was the thread would run out and the kids would drift away from me. I don’t know if she was part of a marriage, but she was more whole than I was—she was surrounded by family. Not even the bison snot could hold together my brittle edges.
“Will you be back here to advise us on the grant? We appreciate your help,” she faltered. “I don’t know if you know much about our history. You might like to see a few places on the reservation.” Something in her voice made me stop. It was a hesitancy, an opening, a little bit of fear but a crack of openness too. She motioned to a man standing off to the side. “Larry, please meet Dr. Thompson. Larry is our typing teacher.” My small hand disappeared into his beefy one, and his fingers felt like stiff sausages. Larry had two long, grey braids that hung down the front of his jacket. His large belly hung over the top of his pants, and his butt disappeared into the depths of his pants at the back. A packet of cigarettes was stuffed into the pocket on his shirt front.
“Come on. I’ve got two tanks of gas. We should be fine.”
Oh shit. Two tanks of gas. Hysteria flooded my chest. “We’re only going for an hour, right?” I asked him while looking for the principal to confirm our return time. “I’ve got to get on the road to Great Falls to catch a flight.” I followed Larry, my kitten heels tapping on the lacquered hallway floors. I saw the principal clutching a notebook to her chest in the office window. She waved goodbye to me. The runaway plane, the push and pull between Gladys and Norman, my children sleeping on my neighbor’s floor, I began to feel bits and pieces of myself crack off and fall to the ground.
Larry put the truck in gear, and we lurched out of the school driveway. We shuddered and bounced along the roads. Larry gained speed as we approached the speed bump warning of wandering bison. I wasn’t prepared. We vaulted over it, and the crown of my head slammed against the metal ceiling. Just like the woman in the plane.
“Sorry,” he said. He looked at me full in the face for the first time. “Are you hurt? He looked more alive than he had in the school. His brown eyes were direct. I noticed his hand rested on the gear shift clutching it only when gaining speed.
“I’m fine.” I was tired and I tried to sit up straight.
“We don’t have to go,” he offered.
“No, no, I do want to go. I’ve just had a hectic trip. A lot has happened in 24 hours.”
“Like what?” he looked at me with a calmness on his placid face.
“You really want to know?” He nodded yes. I tried to stick to the facts. I detailed the plane emergency, the drive around the lake, the bison burger and unwanted dance partner, and then the bison snot attack. Larry laughed until he had to use his large, puffy hands to wipe under his eyes.
“I’m sorry you haven’t had a better trip to Montana.” He grew silent for a few moments. “Thanks,” he said. I cocked my head sideways. “For saying Blackfoot instead of Blackfeet. Most people don’t know the difference.”
“I only knew it because of my research. Why isn’t it corrected?” Larry shrugged his shoulders at me. I shook my head frustrated. “It’s hard. I do all this research, but it is not the same. I go to different states and walk into places where everyone knows one another. I want to be respectful of how people live their lives and how teachers have separate ways of working with kids. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job while I’ve been here, or anywhere,” I muttered.
“You did alright,” he acknowledged. “Maybe we can do something like you talked about. No one told you that rez kids don’t take schoolbooks home. They aren’t that important. They leave them somewhere or they get lost at home. We teach other ways.”
“Yeah. Everyone did.”
I felt better. I looked around me as we chugged along. Wild prairie rolled off into the distance until it turned into the foothills of the mountains. We crossed a small river that appeared to be over its banks with spring run-off. The trees lining the bouncing water had a tinge of green to them.
“Two Medicine River.” Larry pointed. A more substantial waterway, it passed beneath the highway we crossed.
“Larry, “what do the kids type in your class?”
“What the book tells them to type.”
“You mean they don’t type their own essays, memos, or letters?”
“Nope. They type what the book tells them to.”
“Why do you do it then?”
He scratched his head. “It’s a job. I get to see all of the kids grow up through the grades. I taught their parents too.”
“Do they type now?” I held my hand on the console as we dipped into a depression in the pasture.
“They don’t need it.”
I let it sink in. “I don’t know how to act here.” As soon as I said the words, I wished I could snatch them back.
“You’re fine.” That’s all Larry said. It was later I realized my bare-naked words hanging in the air opened the door wider still. He slowed and stopped next to a gate. He got out opened it and drove through. Bison looked at us. They didn’t move as we bounced in and out of the ruts in the field. A giant pile of hay was piled up a few car lengths away. Their tales flapped like irritated crows.
“We’re here.” He turned the truck off. Looking down at my shoes he said, “We’re just going to step over there.” He pointed to the high point where a lone tree stood at the crest of the hill.
I looked down at my kitten heel shoes. Maybe I could have them dry cleaned, I thought.
We hiked up to the top of the ridge. I stumbled. Larry grabbed my elbow and pulled me upright. I looked at my watch. 2:00. I still had time. Buoyed, I hurried to catch up to Larry’s slow but unstopping pace.
“Why do you look at your watch all of the time?” He asked as we stood and surveyed the valley below us.
“I want to get home to my children.”
“We have Indian time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It means we get there when we get there.” Larry cleared his throat. “The last of the buffalo were slaughtered here.”
“I’m sorry.” I looked around at the desolate land where shadows indicated depressions in the earth and small groves of leafless trees were bent against the wind. “Where are we?”
“Ghost Ridge. About a hundred years ago the Blackfoot think the last buffalo died here.”
“See down there?” He pointed to a pile of boards that looked like it might have been a shed once. “When the buffalo died, the Blackfoot camped here in the winter and most of them starved. They ate cottonwood bark trying to stay alive. An Indian named Almost a Dog cut notches on a branch every time a body was taken away. He had over 500 notches. That building down there is filled with bones. There’s a few more caved-in sheds around here too. There got to be so few people left they were too exhausted to bury them.” He looked at me. “Come see.” He held out his hand and I grabbed his arm. We carefully made our way down the hill. We stood a respectful distance away, and Larry took his cigarettes out of his pocket. He handed me one.
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
“They are not for smoking.” He motioned me to make a slit along the side and free the tobacco from the paper. He turned to his left, bowed, and dusted the ground with the faded bits of dried leaves. “West.” He turned to the south, and we shook out a few more flakes. “East,” he said quietly. We turned last to the north and let the last of the tobacco flutter to the ground. “We’re giving thanks.”
I leaned past Larry’s shoulder to see the bones. He turned me to him and kissed me tentatively on the lips. I stumbled backwards, and my fingernails dug at my chapped lips like I was trying to remove the bison snot from the morning.
“Larry, why did you do that?” I wiped my mouth with my hand again. His cigarette breath repulsed me, and his slack, old man lips had pushed against my teeth, probing for more.
“I thought you knew this was sacred to us.” Larry’s red face blazed from cold embarrassment.
“Yes, but why you would think it was okay to kiss me?” I lost control of my voice, and it grew higher as I slipped down the hill towards the truck. I started to cry.
“We were talking, and I thought you were interested in being a Blackfoot. I thought you would be my wife.” Larry passed me on the hill with large, long strides.
I tried to keep my rising fear under control. “I need to get back to my car. I need to get to the airport. I need to get home. I need my children.” I hiccupped through my tears. Larry slammed his door shut and started the engine. The truck came to life and began to bump its way through the field.
“Larry, wait for me,” I wailed. Exhaust puffed from the tail pipe as it left.
I began to walk, then jog and then run through the pasture. I couldn’t catch my breath. According to my watch I had left Portland exactly a day ago. I ran past the bison daring them to engage with me. I reached the gate and saw that it was locked shut. I didn’t even stop. I put my kitten-heel shoes on the bottom rung and climbed the gate. I slung my leg over the top bar and climbed down the other side. My suit was sopping wet and covered in mud. I stumbled up to the road and did the unthinkable: I stuck out my thumb.
“Oh my, what happened?” The school principal asked rolling down her window. She pulled over and grabbed her pile of notebooks, kids’ lunchboxes, and a basketball and threw them in the back to make room for me.
“He wanted to marry me.” I sobbed.
“Oh.” She focused on the road. “Larry’s wife just died. I am so sorry. I thought he would show you the river. Never would I have thought something like this would happen. He must have really liked you to go to that place. Please, please don’t be angry at him. He’s an old man who doesn’t know better. Showing you Ghost Ridge was a great honor,” she took her foot off the gas pedal for a moment. “For most it has been forgotten.”
“I just want to go to the airport.” I stared out the side window.
When I knocked on my neighbor’s door later that night, my children were in their pajamas asleep on her couch. They clutched their lunch boxes on their laps.
“They were sure you would come,” she said smiling. “They’re good kids, you know.” She sniffed me. “Tell me later about your trip?” she asked.
“Definitely,” I whispered. We slept that night, the three of us, piled in my bed under covers that smelled of lavender laundry detergent, clean hair (mine, thank goodness), and that mysterious, undefinable scent of toddlers in sleep.
It’s been twenty-five years since my trip to the Blackfoot Reservation School. I’ve been married for two decades to Paul, who is not just the other half to make a whole, but my everything. Even so, sometimes I find myself sliding back to that trip to Montana. I’m pulled backward like time has fallen away, and the distance has shrunk into nothingness. Logically, I know the plane’s dead engine is scrap parts, and surely someone fixed the “C” in front of the oors sign, my navy wool suit and my kitten heels are buried in a landfill, and the grant money has been spent and replenished many times. Larry, however, has only Ghost Ridge where the bones of his people lay forever in the ruins of a few scattered old sheds. He could still be the typing teacher who types nothing living near the town that was erased. What was it the principal said?
“Showing you Ghost Ridge was a great honor. For most it has been forgotten.”
I remember Ghost Ridge, the site of our brief and bewildering marriage. Perhaps more than one version of time exists. I rocket through time anxious to see around the next corner while Larry gets there when he gets there. Our times converged while we stood together on the top of the ridge looking down on the history below. His blessing of the four winds, the visit to the bones, and ultimately the kiss, were his attempt to tease time into giving him a life he had lost. How sad, that it is only through a backward glance, that we realize time has moved at all, and much of what we have done has been forgotten—if we are lucky, maybe it’s remembered by someone.
The last time I was in San Francisco, I believe I was thirty-two years old. I was single, alone, on a business trip, and my parents were taking care of my children. I remember thinking that the city was invigorating and abuzz with activity.
Fast forward twenty-three years, and the activity was about to do me in. “Paul, I’m going to die. Stop.” I stood in the middle of a sidewalk on Stockton Street, one of the city’s highest and steepest hills. I was desperately trying to suck massive amounts of oxygen into my lungs. “What’s wrong with me? I’m never like this.” I leaned on my husband who was standing with his back to the hill also gasping. “The problem… is… my… thighs,” I wheezed loudly between words.
Paul started to laugh and it turned into a spasmatic cough similar to the sound of a barking seal. “Your thighs?”
“Yes,” I said taking deep breaths. “Aren’t muscles supposed to move oxygen around your body?”
“Honey, they do. They just aren’t capable of breathing for you.”
In Seattle, Paris, Mexico City…in so many places I would have smacked him, but at that moment, I didn’t have the ability to lift my arms, so I tucked it away for another time.
It was our first night in San Francisco, and I was determined to go to the Tonga Room in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. Never have I been more disappointed and humiliated by a restaurant. It was like a marriage between Chuckie Cheese and the Panda Express. The mai tais were 22 dollars, the pupu platter was 48 dollars, the fried spring rolls were seven dollars each and they came four to a plate. A giant fan blew warm moist air across the room, and waiters stood still clutching paper menus when the inevitable gust passed by them. A recording of rumbling thunder and lashing rain boomed from speakers in the corners, and dozens of children ran through the restaurant, dipping their hands in the refurbished pool turned lagoon and splashed one another. I was hit with a chilling wave. I resisted the urge to stick out my foot and trip the urchin.
“I’m double dipping the spring rolls,” Paul said shoving one in his mouth. “If we’re here when the band starts, it’s a fifteen-dollar cover charge for each of us.”
“Fine,” I said breaking a fried roll in half and using it like a biscuit to sop up the extra syrup. “These children are heathens anyway. Where are their parents?” Then I saw the line of mai tai glasses lined up in the center of the table next to us. “That’s a hundred dollars of mai tais,” I said shocked.
“Check, please,” Paul said raising his hand and struggling to swallow the last of the roll.
We landed on the sidewalk outside the hotel.
“What do we do now?” Paul asked.
“We look for people who are at least our age, cheerful, enjoy food, and are not afraid to drink a whole bottle of wine with dinner,” I said determined. “To begin, we only walk downhill.” We picked up the pace.
“Women’s hair will be tastefully colored,” I whispered.
“Men?” Paul inquired.
“Silver foxes just like you,” I said patting his thick silver-grey hair.
“Do these people like Italian?” Paul stopped and pointed his finger at the end of the block. A brave green, white, and red striped flag stood out in the darkness. Standing on my tiptoes and straining to see, I saw white tablecloths covering the tables. As the door flew open and ejected a happy couple, laughter rang in the cold night air.
“I love being 55. Thank goodness we are not afraid of white flour, cream sauces, or lady fingers soaked in espresso…let’s hurry.” My patent leather shoes clicked frantically towards the warmly lit windows.
We arrived at the restaurant and a bottle of chianti was skillfully opened and poured. I closed my eyes and savored the bright, spicy scent.
“Don’t take this wrong,” Paul said. I opened my eyes to see him holding a glass up to cheer the good fortune of our night. “A toast to your thighs. May they always carry the oxygen to get us where we belong.”
We clinked glasses and I smiled at him as I took a small sip. Two. I have two smacks tucked away for the future.
I wrote this essay a few years ago when my son, Connor, and his wife, Samantha, were expecting their first child. That baby turned out to be CJ, Connor Junior, who will turn four this December. His sister Harley also has a December birthday, and she will celebrate her third birthday this year. Paul and I had the privilege and honor of spending the last four and a half months living with Samantha, CJ, and Harley while Connor was deployed in Kuwait. Our driveway was crammed with toys, books burst out of baskets, and playdough found its way into the most unlikely of places. Every day was a treasure, and a week before they were to return to Texas to welcome Connor home, the pumpkin patch opened. CJ and Harley did all the same activities my children did years ago, and, from the glimmer in their eyes, I have a feeling some unknown pumpkin patch in the future will suffer the same fate ours did. This essay is a compilation of conversations we have had over the years about this happy day at the pumpkin patch, so while my grown kids may protest the veracity of the setting, I can assure you all of the memorable events of that day DID happen.
My daughter SarahKate, son Connor, and daughter-in-law, Samantha were going through a stack of old family pictures. A picture of Connor and SarahKate as teenagers made me pause.
“Wait, what day was that?” I asked. The kids sat on the steps of the porch each holding an orange cat. Our golden retriever, Tucker, sat on the step below them and looked over his shoulder at the cats and the kids. Pumpkins were packed in untidy piles around them.
“You don’t remember that day, Mom?” Connor said. “Really? You spent the entire day mad at us.”
“It was a great day,” SarahKate grinned.
“It was a long time ago.” Connor handed Sam the picture.
“You were thirteen and eleven, then? They look happy. Do you remember why you were mad?” Sam handed me the picture.
“I’m not sure.” I stared at the photo. Connor, not yet in the Army, had curly hair. SarahKate had just started wearing make up and her fresh, peachy skin glowed through the luminescent powder. They leaned towards each other teasing the cats.
Something stirred in me.
“What happened that day?” I inquired. “On second thought, maybe it’s better if Sam doesn’t find out and I don’t remember.”
“Oh, no, I want to hear all about this day,” Sam said.
“Mom, come on. It was Pumpkin Patch Day.” SarahKate huffed. “Seriously, Mom? The cow, don’t you remember the cow?”
“Maybe,” I offered, probing my memory.
“What happened?” Sam asked.
“Connor hit a cow.” SarahKate’s face was solemn.
Sam turned to Connor. “How could you hit a cow? How mean.”
“SarahKate, you shouldn’t put it like that,” he glared. I held the photo in my fingertips and searched the young faces in the picture.
They were so young.
“There’s this pumpkin patch we go to every year since we were little. They have games, a petting zoo, and a big field where you can pick your own pumpkin.”
“Apple fritters, too,” SarahKate added. “They’re amazing. All drippy with frosting.”
“SK, I’m talking,” Connor invoked the nickname he gave her years ago. “So, there was this game called the Apple Sling Shot. There was a huge rubber band that you put mushy apples in and you pulled it back as far as you could and then let go. If you were really good you could even aim it.”
“So, Connor aimed for a black and white cow out in the field and he hit it right on the side. We heard a thunk.” SarahKate smirked.
“You guys are being totally unfair,” Connor ran his hand down his face in disbelief. “There were big circles spray painted on the grass. They had to know that people were going to hit the cows standing in the bullseyes.”
“So, you got mad?” Sam asked.
My eyes held hers for a moment.
“If it happened, I’m sure I hustled them out of there as fast as I could. I wouldn’t have wanted to pay for the cow.”
I didn’t want them to see me laugh either, I thought.
“Then,” SarahKate snorted, “she got really mad.”
“No, no, let me tell it,” Connor said. “She marched to the barn and told us to wait while she got fritters and cider.”
“Hmm, let me guess. You didn’t wait like she told you.” Sam frowned at her husband.
Her husband, I thought to myself. My son is someone’s husband.
“Of course not,” Connor and SarahKate screamed with laughter.
“No, my turn,” SarahKate rushed in. “We each had two tickets left. The train was for little kids, but Connor and I jumped on just as it took off. I had the cat,” she purred.
“Always picked the cat,” Connor muttered. “I had the elephant. So we couldn’t fit our legs in the seats, so we sat on top of the cars and held on to the sides. We thought we had enough time to get back before Mom came out, but,”
“I saw them,” I blurted out. “I was so mad I was running next to the train yelling at them to get off the kiddie cars. The cider spilled on my hands and the fritters got mushy.”
“You do remember that day,” SarahKate said astonished.
“I do now,” I retorted. “You kids were so bad.”
“Please tell me they didn’t do anything else,” Sam said.
“Come on, Sam, don’t you know us by now?” SarahKate teased.
My heart sang at the unexpected familiarity.
“All we had left was picking out our pumpkins. So Connor and I got a huge wheelbarrow to carry them back. We always picked out the biggest ones we could lift.” SarahKate looked innocent. “It was Connor’s fault after that.”
“Oh, no,” Sam said looking aghast at Connor. “You didn’t.”
“Oh yeah, we did,” Connor said. “SarahKate climbed in the wheelbarrow and we raced up and down the rows.”
“Then it got wild,” SarahKate broke in. “Tons of little kids were crawling into wheelbarrows and big kids were pushing them through the vines. Parents were yelling and slipping in the mud as they tried to catch them.”
“Oh, my.” Sam was shocked. “What did you do?” She looked at me expectantly.
“I hid in the minivan.” I held my palms up in defeat.
“We had to roll our pumpkins to the car. The cashier took our wheelbarrow away, obviously,” Connor sighed.
“The pumpkins wobbled a lot,” SarahKate remembered.
“It was the happiest day of my life.” I whispered.
“Ah, Mom. That’s nice.” SarahKate smiled.
“Thanks, Mom.” Connor kissed my cheek.
“I want a day like that too, but I think we should leave the cow part out,” Sam said.
“Oh no,” Connor and SarahKate chimed together. “You have to hit the cow.”
Mojo. It’s when the stars align and passion carries you forward into the best you can do. In baseball it means seeing the seams on the ball as you swing the bat, but for a travel writer, even wardrobe malfunctions can be the exodus you need to push your writing to another level. I give you…my mojo without a top or a bottom.
A journalist turned cigar shop owner who counted Fidel Castro as one of his friends and a machete-wielding river tour guide were the Puerto Vallatra and Sayulita mojo-producing stories of my ten-day Mexican vacation.
We spent just one day in Puerto Vallarta, and that was more than enough. Hurricane Nora had gone through just a few days before our arrival, and it had decimated the city’s sanitation system. Brackish water covered the cobble-stoned streets up to the curbs and fountains of brown water bubbled up from the city’s manhole covers. The smell? It was like a dog park where too many dogs had a party and tried to hide the smell by peeing on it. The locals called it “aguas negras,” or literally “black waters” spilling into the ocean.
In spite of the smell and the creeping tide of sewage water, I had done my research, and I knew the exact six-block radius of shops between the Cathedral of Guadalupe and the Puerto Vallarta waterfront that would yield the best art galleries, women’s boutiques, and 2 for 1 margaritas. Shopping is my life; I’m truly gifted at it. To keep Paul hoping we were just around the corner from the aforementioned margaritas, I occasionally have to find him a store that he thinks he discovered. It gives him a point in the win column. The shop must embrace manliness. It doesn’t have to stock things for men per se; it just must make a man feel manly to cross the threshold. A shop sign jumped out from under the eaves of an old hacienda—La Casa del Habano. A cigar shop. Paul’s eyes lit up. He could tell his brothers he bought Cuban cigars. It was a win for both of us. He got the cool brother nod, and I got the coolest wife award.
After wiping our feet off thoroughly, we stepped into the store and were immediately wrapped in curls of cigar smoke.
“I’m going into the humidor,” Paul said with his hand on the doorknob of a glass-paneled door. Inside I saw rows and rows of cigar boxes containing wrinkled, brown stubs all snuggled up together in the dim light.
“I thought a humidor was a box with a see-through lid,” I said flatly.
“That is our home humidor. This is a man’s humidor,” Paul said softly as he eased the door shut behind him.
I looked around at the shop. This was a man’s world. Bottles of tequila, rum, and mezcal lined the window frames and bookshelves, and a brick staircase led down into a cool basement where cigar smoke was puffing from the corner.
“Welcome to my shop,” a voice said from the shadows. A light switched on, and a man who vaguely resembled Ernest Hemmingway was ensconced in the corner of a worn leather couch the color of Havana coffee. He was portly with a wrinkled shirt tight around his belly, a close-cropped silver beard and matching silver hair partly hidden under a Panama hat. “Drink?” He held out a bottle of mezcal.
“No thanks. I am waiting for my husband.” I looked around. There weren’t a lot of places to sit. I slid onto the leather couch at the other end from him.
“I smoke ten cigars a day. Five at home, five here in the shop.” He went silent and drew in a drag that filled his chest. “Smoke?”
“Not a day in my life,” I responded folding my hands over the purse in my lap.
“Too bad. You might like it. Especially had you started early.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “What do you do?” he asked.
“I’m a writer.”
He leaned toward me and put an ash tray between us on the back of the couch. He tapped the ashes and then held the cigar out to me. “I’m a writer too.” I ignored the offering. “In fact, I was one of the only writers Fidel Castro allowed to interview him.” He blew smoke in the general direction of the ceiling. “Castro told me he’d had sexual intercourse 35,000 times in his life. Before breakfast, after lunch, and during siesta too,” he said breathlessly as he exhaled.
I felt sick to my stomach. “Well, I am headed to the humidor. Time for us to get going.” I trotted up the steps and pressed my hands and face on the outside of the cool glass of the door and used my fists to get Paul’s attention. I tipped my head towards the outside and motioned to my husband I was leaving.
While Mr. Fake Hemmingway wrapped up Paul’s purchases, I stood outside and smoothed my dress down in the stifling heat. Sweat dripped off the ends of my hair onto my skin and slid onto my neck, and I realized something didn’t feel right. I looked down and two buttons on the bosom of my dress had come undone. Not only was my chest open to the world, but my bra was a little tight and the ladies were propped and pushed like Marilyn Monroe’s.
I thought about telling Paul about Mr. Fake Hemmingway’s sleazy behavior towards me, but then I remembered there were three more stores to go, and one of them had multicolored leather sandals. People thought Marilyn Monroe was a ditz, but she managed to deftly handle an iconic playwright, a salacious president, and a major league baseball player with coyness and a pouty expression. I could take a page out of that gal’s playbook. I felt my mojo hum.
How do you tell a proud, macho tour guide that he dropped his machete in a small and accidental pocket? Paul shook his head in the negative as we stood behind Jorge, our tour guide for La Pila del Rey, a national heritage site for the Altavista petroglyphs, carvings made by the Tecoxquines, an Aztec tribe from the 16th century. His eyes gleaming in a wicked grin, Jorge had tossed the machete into the air over his shoulder. He thought it landed straight down into the big pocket, but instead it had tumbled it in the water bottle pocket leaving a two-inch slice in the worn fabric. I shook my fist at Paul silently and gave him the stink eye. I can’t believe a man’s delicate pride was more important than the very real chance I could be sliced by a bouncing two-foot-long rusty machete with bloody first aid tape for a handle.
Paul and I have hiked quite a bit together, just not in the last decade. With Jorge in front of me and Paul behind me, I didn’t have much of an exit strategy. I was stuck behind the machete, and all I could do was watch its movement. For the next two hours I trained my eyes on the machete like it was a bomb in an action movie.
Happily sharing his knowledge, Jorge led us on a scramble over boulders, a thigh-deep rain-swollen river crossing and sudden screeching halts to view over one hundred carvings. The machete swung wildly in every direction but gamely stayed in the small pocket. In the end I learned three things: one, the Texcoxquines deeply valued their gods and mind-altering substances; two, I was faster, quicker, and more resilient than I thought as I ducked and dodged the flipping and sliding machete (in fact, Jorge nicknamed me the little goat); and three, just when you let your guard down, trouble really happens. At the end of the river portion of the tour, Paul and I shot through a rock chute, down a waterfall, and into a deep pool. The force of water was so strong it stripped my bathing suit bottoms off and deposited them near a particularly large cluster of petroglyphs. For a moment I thought Jorge might pick them up with his machete and hand them to me, but thankfully he turned his back while I struggled to put them on in the churning water. You better believe my mojo was humming then.
For a travel writer, having your mojo in place is living life at its best. Losing my top and then my bottom may have been an uncomfortable way to arrive at that best of places, but Mr. Fake Hemmingway and Tour Guide Jorge, were the means to writing about this part of Mexico—where the sound of a tuba playing carries across the water, surfers linger off the coast waiting for the perfect wave, visible generations of dogs dash through town, never ending milk chocolate water crosses the path at the corner, walking through a cemetery is one way to get to the beach, and speed bumps come with tops or are topless. Tops and bottoms aside, I’d have called you crazy a week ago if you had told me Marilyn Monroe’s ghost would be the one to help me find my mojo.
Falling in love is not just for lovers, it is for travelers too.
We are in Sayulita, Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean where pelicans cartwheel into the water, their outer feathers ragged from diving for tiny fish. Our home for ten days is one of seven little bungalows split from an old villa called Los Casa Arcos. A white stucco alcove with a red tiled roof, black-painted windows, and surrounded by worn brick paths, our temporary home is tucked between an old cemetery settled into the hillside above us and a canopy of trees that muffle the crashing waves against the rocks below us. Just after sunset, candlelight flickers between the crypts, and the geckos, birds, and cicadas take turns whirring and chirping from the spreading branches.
Antonio, the innkeeper, gardener, bug sprayer, and roof leak fixer stomps around the grounds and the houses. He is trailed by his little girl, Nina, who chatters at him like a tree gecko searching for her family. Antonio shoos Rita, the white cat with a brown face, from our covered patio, but since she cries with pleasure when we return from our adventures, we adopt her and sneak her little pieces of cheese as she winds around our legs.
Antonio shows us the secret tunnel that runs underneath the length of the villa and hands us the keys to the gate at the far end that opens onto a crumbling staircase above a hidden beach. The granite rocks glitter with shimmering mica, and Paul is enchanted by all of it—especially the tunnel.
Thunder and lightning race across Sayulita Bay each midnight and Paul knows where to put the bowls and towels to catch the water streaming in from the cracks Antonio has not yet fixed. On our third night, a violent storm hung over the villa for an interminable time, and Rita became frantic on the patio howling and moaning for help. Against Paul’s better judgement, we let her in where she raced to the bed and dropped a two-inch long cockroach in the middle of the tangled sheets. My screams pierced the night greater than any boom of thunder, and Paul and Antonio met at the ancient door of our abode and silently exchanged the squirming cat. Both men were in their underwear, but they only wanted my shrieking to end, so they silently agreed to let appearances—Antonio in his boxers and Paul in his white underpants—to pass without comment.
I have never seen so many beach hawkers trudge through the sand and ask people to buy from the rainbow of wares piled on their backs, hanging from their arms, or tucked away in large, flapping bags. Old men with tired, dirty cowboy hats open their briefcase-like boxes to reveal brilliant, shined silver jewelry, while pairs of women grab corners of neon blankets and frilly table clothes and shake them aloft to showcase the expansive colors. Grim little boys hold bouquets of roses and lilies aloft and cajole men at each table; they know they must sell them before returning home to their mothers.
But it is the musicians of Sayulita who greet you on every street corner, beach entrance, even under our patio one night. No one sings softly, everywhere ukuleles and bongo drums play country music, and guitars pound the chords to 1970 hits—especially Hotel California—which gets in your head for the rest of the day, but it was the Mariachi band that made me fall in love with Sayulita.
A band of five coronets, a bass guitar, an accordion, and one violin crowd into the beachside restaurant where we are having dinner, and other diners grumble as they scrape their chairs closer to their tables.
“200 pesos a song,” the leader announces. Only eight dollars. His hand rests on the shoulder of a young boy, about twelve, with flawlessly gelled hair and a blank expression on his face. His coronet hangs next to his leg; his fingers slack around it. None of the diners speak up and instead turn to their dinners.
“I want a song,” I call as the group makes its way down the back stairs of the restaurant toward the beach. They pause as I stand up and welcome them back to our table.
“How about you play it?” Paul motions to the young man.
“Paul,” I turn to him horrified. “He is just a little boy.”
The young man uses his fingers to pull on the soft fringe of his hair and shifts his weight from foot to foot. His green-brown eyes, like the sunburned hills surrounding the water, are large in his face.
“You don’t have to,” I protest seeing his lower lip tremble.
“No, he can do it, Senorita,” the leader said. His own hair is slick too; he is the boy’s father. He slips his hand into his pocket and pulls out a mouthpiece for his son’s coronet. He pushes it into the boy’s hand and squeezes the boy’s small fingers with reassurance. He clears his throat and announces, “The song is called El Perdido Niño, and is about a parent searching for their child. It is an old Mariachi song.” He smiles at me. “In English, it is known as the ‘Lost Child.’” Carefully, holding his coronet at his side, he turns and walks out of the restaurant into the twilight.
Oh my Lord, I thought. What have we done?
The little boy is sweating and licking his lips painfully. He shoves the mouthpiece into the instrument. The band members pat his back and ready themselves to play. He trains his eyes on me and then closes them.
“Listen. They wouldn’t have let him come if they didn’t think he was ready.” We lean forward.
Outside, a cry comes from a distant coronet. It calls into the night where the sun has just set into the bay. It reaches out like an anxious mother calling to her missing child. Fear and beauty are woven together in its hanging notes. The talking around us stops. I wait to hear the coronet’s song again, but it is silent and dark outside.
In front of us in the warm, humid air of the cheerful restaurant, the young man’s shoulders relax, and he fills his cheeks with air. Raising his instrument to his lips, he returns the distant call with the same melody, the same haunting cry. He is the child searching for his parent. He drops his head and listens. Eyes closed, he waits. The boy’s face turns red as he catches sight of his father beaming through the restaurant playing the refrain again. With a huge sigh of relief, the young man blows hard into his instrument and drums his fingers on the valves. The rest of the group picks up their parts and the song bursts to life. It feels exactly like the child has been found. The diners who had gone silent during the lonely call and response, clap and slap their hands on their knees.
I put my hand to my sunburned neck where my pulse pounds. My face is flushed and happy. I lean forward and say to him over the music, “You touched my heart.” I lay my hand on my chest and look at his father. He grins, one parent to another. Paul hands the young boy a generous tip. He holds up his hand and the boy gives him a high five.
I have fallen in love with Sayulita. There is no doubt about it.
Paul and I became those people tonight–the ones dining on the beach with a private valet, bushels of orchids perfuming the air, a lighted chandelier swaying over our heads, candles marking the edges of our dining area, and broiled lobsters bristling on our plates.
Our travel company kindly treated us to a romantic, private dinner on the beach at the Tubkaak Resort in Krabi after an unfortunate experience in a Bangkok restaurant.
It was a beautiful setting and delicious food, but there was a story under all that glitz and glamour…
We’d been traveling for ten days by this time, and we’d done our laundry once. We bundled the hot, smelly mess into a bag and handed it to the staff. When later I opened the closet to change my clothes, it was empty. We had two choices–each of us wear the one pair of dirty underwear we had turned inside out twice already–or my idea–go commando.
“I’m not going without underwear.” Paul said, pulling back on the grey, rumpled pair of shorts that had already seen a waterfall hike and a particularly warm day at a temple.
“My dress is lined, so I don’t need underwear.” Together we held up the pale blue, strapless dress and inspected it. We had it made in Chang Mai, and the tailor was better at men’s clothing. Significantly better.
“Pretty sure you need that underwear,’ Paul said shaking his head.
So, just like the couple who planned the events of their Senior Prom, Paul and I prepared for the Romantic Beach Dinner.
Paul shaved. Then I shaved using his razor. He says they are ruined after that, but I don’t see the difference. Paul ironed his pants and shirt and buffed his shoes.
I needed help of a different kind.
“I lean over and drop them in and then you cinch me on the tightest clasps,” I instructed him while bending over at the waist. Paul stood frozen.
“How do you think a woman gets a strapless bra on?” I complained and snapped my fingers.
When we arrived at the beach, our valet, Chantra, waited for us. The sun was still bright over the water, and the humidity seeped into my hair. I had used a new organic mosquito repellent, Kaffir Lime, and the smell made Paul walk several feet behind me.
Chantra seated us at a table for two in the sand. Tinkling crystals bushed against each other overhead, stems of white and purple orchids spilled from the candelabras dug into the sand, and yards of tulle covered our chairs and the table. We were the cake topper engulfed in cream frosting.
What I didn’t expect, was the string of people who walked past our table a few feet away guessing why were having such a fancy dinner.
“Too old to be getting married,”
“Yeah, anniversary, maybe,”
“I don’t get it. Who are they?”
As we were the objects of scrutiny and discussion, we dined on Crab Salad Towers, Andaman Sea Soup, Passion Fruit Sorbet, Broiled Lobster, and Tiramisu for dessert. In between each course, Chantra dashed from the shadows and sprayed Bug Off on my legs (the organic stuff was a bust), and Paul and I took turns re-lighting the candles which was like playing Whack-a-Mole, because there were so many. We shooed away a cat who jumped on my lap determined to snare our lobster carcasses, and I helped Chantra find a fork when he dropped it in the sand. It took a village to keep that dinner on track.
“Coffee,” I called out to the darkness. “Please?” I cleared my throat. “Chantra?”
We picked up our things–phones, reading glasses, and sun glasses–the vitals, you know, and before we left, just for me, Paul faked one last dancing picture.
Upon returning to our room, we really celebrated. Our laundry was back. Paul counted his underwear pile twice, and I squealed when I saw my Ohio State Buckeyes nightgown starched and hung on a hanger. It looked better than the dress, and it did not require a bra of any kind.
I told Paul I wanted to meet a monk in Thailand, and he responded that it was unlikely there was a Monk Chat tour. Maybe Karma will arrange a meeting, I sniffed. Sure, he said. Go for it…
Well…on the last leg of our inbound flight to Bangkok, I saw a monk, swathed in a voluminous, tangerine-colored sheet with a wool hat pulled over his ears, enter the plane and walk down our aisle. I offered to trade him my window seat for his middle seat, and he said yes. It felt odd to sit between my husband and a monk, but when I glanced at Paul with a bemused smile on my face, I did not know that Karma dislikes smugness.
“Would you mind if I asked you about being a monk?” He nodded in agreement and I pondered my opening. In the back of my brain I remembered my feet had to point away from him, I couldn’t step on his shadow, and, with a thrill, I recalled there could be no skin to skin contact with a woman (even his mother and sisters) because females have a corrupting influence on monks. I raised the armrest between Paul and myself and mentally measured the distance between the monk and me. It appeared to be ample. Karma also does not appreciate superciliousness.
“How long have you been a monk?”
“Since I was seven years old,,” he replied looking at me over the top of his glasses. “My parents sent me to the temple so I could get an education. I was a novice until I was twenty and then I accepted the robes for life.”
“Did your parents come visit you?”
“Yes, but only once a year on my birthday. Chang Rai is very far from Bangkok,” he said pulling his robe tighter and settling into the gap between the seat and the window.
“Could they bring a birthday cake?”
“No, monks can only eat what they are offered each morning.”
I raised my eyebrows. Karma does not like doubt.
“Monks take bowls out each morning and people who follow Buddha put money and food in the bowls. It’s called alms.” His sheet pulled away from his shoulder, and for a moment I saw a section of his smooth, hairless chest and bare arm. They looked delicate, unlined, and, I have to say it…naked.
“What do you do as a monk?” Karma does not like rudeness.
“I pray, chant, and meditate.”
“I can’t meditate,” I rushed in. “There are so many thoughts in my head, I can’t stop them.” Next to me I felt Paul’s back shake with laughter. Karma does’t like interruptions.
“Yes, you can. You can learn to meditate.” He pointed to my water bottle. “Look at it. See how it is shaped? The color? The amount of water? Focus on it.”
I tilted the bottle back and forth like a snow globe. “What does meditating do?” Karma does not like impatience.
“When you are a monk you can meditate alone or with others. It is about stilling your thoughts, carving a hole inside you, and letting it fill itself. I teach the novices to meditate using the full moon as their object.”
We chatted for a while longer, and then he put his headphones on and turned away to watch a movie. I stared at my water bottle and tried to do as he suggested. Still my thoughts, carve a hole, let it fill itself. I looked at the water through the blue plastic. Maybe I could smell the water. Karma does not like disbelief.
I flipped open the top of the bottle and leaned in to smell. The bottle was filled to the edge, and I didn’t notice growing bubbles roiling and building in the bottom. Before I could figure out what was happening, the straw bulged and water surged to the top. The combination of the change in air pressure in the plane and my shaking the bottle during my monk chat had created a geyser of pressurized water. It shot out the bottle and straight into the ceiling above our heads. It rained all over the monk, Paul and me, and when the bottle was empty, drips from the ceiling rolled down the sides of our faces. The front of my shirt was soaked, and the monk’s robes were so water-logged, he could have wrung them out. Paul jumped up to get towels, and I held the empty water bottle in my hand. Karma got even.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I was meditating. Trying to.”
He took his glasses off and used a section of his cloth to rub his lenses dry.
“That’s good,” he said placing his glasses back on. “perhaps if you focus on a full moon, it is unlikely it will rain.”
I have never believed in Karma. I may have to rethink my position.
I led a congo line of dancing middle-age women to Frank Sinatra’s I”’ll Do it My Way” tonight at the Night Market in Chang Mai, Thailand. Where’s the picture? There isn’t one. Paul was in the bathroom.
I’m glad—but not for the reasons you might think.
Our vacation to Thailand has come at a crossroads for me. Although we started planning it back in February, I didn’t know until a few months later that the legislature would eliminate my job. I was unaware that I would be facing medical issues that are more annoying than anything else–but still real.
I felt like I was waiting at a bus stop where every bus passed me by. When the funding was cut for my position, I was five months from my twenty-year anniversary which is the magic number for a complete retirement package. The state education agency agreed to keep me on for those extra five months and asked me to complete a few small projects. Five months is a long time to have very little to do. It is a long time to be an expert in what you do and yet no one needs you to do it. The few projects took me a few weeks, not months, and while I waited for the time to pass, I did a lot of thinking.
So, that brings me back to the Night Market dance. In Chang Mai, there is a day market that sells indigo clothes, smocked pants, and all things elephant. The night market sells all of the same things, but it takes place at night where pastel lamps swing in the breeze, the flames of the street food surge with the cooking meat, Las Vegas-style Thai Lady Boys pose for pictures for 100BHT (three dollars), and people get up and sing karaoke. Here’s the deal—Night Market in Chang Mai is huge. I’m talking enough vendors to fill a football field. I’m talking a booming audio system for the karaoke.
I sat down in a plastic chair in the middle of the third row in front of the karaoke stage. I clutched my purse in my lap. ‘Zip up your purse,’ Paul mouthed to me over his shoulder as he walked away. I sat quietly, my leg bouncing to the rhythm of the music. A tiny, grey-haired Thai man on the stage was sweating, pacing back and forth, and pointing to the women in the crowd as he belted out Sinatra’s greatest hit. The woman sitting next to me reached over and tapped my arm. She tipped her head towards the stage and motioned for me to go up. I shook my head No. No way. Her friend reached over and patted my leg. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she laughed and pushed my arm. It was a friendly push.
Emboldened, they began to talk to me in Thai. Their voices got higher and more insistent. Their friends came over curious to see why the crazy American lady wouldn’t sing karaoke. Finally, I dropped my purse and stood up. They roared and shook their fists in the air. There was no way I was going to sing, but I could dance. Seconds later there was a pile of purses knee deep, and twenty Thai women and one crazy red head were pressed against the stage and waving their arms like they were at a concert.
The singer motioned for the music to start again. I lined the little ladies up, their worn ballet flats facing forward, and patted each of them as I ran down the row putting their hands on the shoulders of the woman in front of them. I took the lead at the front of the line, and we took off. We snaked through the stalls, pausing to wave our hands like flags when it came to Sinatra’s big line. People were filming us with their I Phones, and I am afraid to check You Tube.
I was astounded by the joy and freedom I felt. It didn’t matter if I looked ridiculous. The Thai ladies and I were having the time of our lives. I kicked my foot to the left with my friends, and we belted out the chorus better than the big New Yorker himself.
All those months of waiting are done. Twenty years was a long time to wait for the congo-line moment of my life, but it is here, and I don’t need a picture to prove to myself that I can do it. For the rest of the night, every time I passed one of those lovely ladies in the market, we’d put our heads together and sing, “I’ll do it my way.”
There’s something about Autumn that causes Paul and I to glance at one another with renewed interest. We feel an itch that needs to be scratched. We stare at each other with raised eyebrows. We pace the house while the rain falls outside. Finally, one of us says, ‘Do you want to go on a trip?’ and the other one sighs, ‘Yes.’
We’re going to Thailand.
Paul spreads travel guides across the dining table, studying maps until he has them memorized. I practice my wai greeting—bowing my head and pressing my palms together. I say the feminine ‘Sawasdee kha’ and Paul answers with the masculine ‘Sawasdee krap,’ the Thai greeting for hello. We watch Netflix shows on street food, buy mosquito repellant for the jungle hikes, ponder appropriate footwear for longtail boats, and read numerous New York Times articles on the ethics of elephant and human interaction.
Paul is relaxed during the days of planning, but my gut churns with something other than acid reflux. Finally, one evening, I lean over on the couch and whisper in his ear, ‘I can’t use chopsticks.”
In the summer of 1987, two of my male friends talked me into going on a blind date with one of their buddies. Don’t ask me his name, I don’t remember. All I know is on that night I went from being a chopstick virgin to a chopstick failure.
He took me to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Seattle, and as our food arrived, he grabbed the fork out of my hand and slapped a set of thin, wooden sticks into my palm.
‘I won’t let you use a fork.’ I still remember his smarmy grin. He must have thought I was the kind of girl who would find it funny. I didn’t. I was steaming.
I bent my stiff fingers around the slim sticks and tried to twirl the noodles like spaghetti. They slid down and pooled on the plate. I chased the chicken trying to get one stick under the meat, but it just kept circling the rim. I attempted to stab a vegetable. No luck. I contemplated stabbing the back of his hand laying on the table between us, but then I remembered I was a lady. I heard him giggle, and I raised my eyes in time to see rubbery rings of calamari speeding towards my mouth.
“Open,” he demanded. “You’ll love it.”
“I want a fork,” I bellowed over my shoulder. The waiter ran between the tables and placed it next to me. He took the offending chopsticks and scurried back to the kitchen.
“The guys didn’t tell me you were so feisty,” Blind date guy said slurping noodles between his lips.
So, I’ve never recovered from chopsticks failure. I’ve tried over the years, but as soon as something flies over the booth, falls on the floor, or zings across the table, I toss the sticks into my purse and embrace the fork. Paul, of course, clicks chopsticks in the air like an insect during mating season and swoops, shovels, and gulps without dropping them or flicking sauce on himself. I watch unmoved.
I remind Paul of the possible benefit of my inability to use chopsticks in Thailand—weight loss. ‘Time on task,’ he chides. ‘You have to practice.’ Easy for him to say. I agree to try again. I retrieve Paul’s personal chopsticks and plop a scoop of ice cream in a bowl. Then my phone rings. It is Natasha, our guide, from Audley Travel.
I confess my fears to her. She laughs and says, “You’ll be fine. People use spoons, forks and chopsticks all over the country.”
Triumph in my eyes, I hang up the phone and announce to Paul, “Good news. Natasha says I don’t have to smuggle a fork into Thailand.”
Paul, knowing there is no topic too insignificant to discuss, nods carefully and replies, “I am happy. Any time we can avoid an international incident over table utensils is a good day.”
I spent my last night in Paris with a Turkish tour guide, a Middle Eastern banker, my husband, and my brother-in-law on a cocktail tour that ended with me stepping through a refrigerator door in a pretend pizza restaurant. What was behind that door? My future.
“Ah, I told you guys not to drink,” Pete looked annoyed when he arrived at our agreed upon meeting place. He walked. We ubered. We had time for one last carafe of cheap wine. He was waiting for the good stuff. He used a parents’ best weapon. Guilt.
“This is a cocktail tour. It is not a pub crawl. We are going to go to bars, try different kinds of spirits and learn about cocktails.” It was a lecture.
Paul and I looked at each other and waited for Pete to move towards the door. Together we raised our glasses and gulped the rest of our wine. Paul grabbed his coat and I pulled my wrap off the back of the chair. In Paris I didn’t wear a coat. I wore a wrap. It was quite theatrical when I flung it across my chest and over my shoulder.
“We’re meeting the guide at the corner up there.” Pete marched ahead and I followed him. Paul brought up the rear steering me, holding up my wool wrap that kept sliding to the ground and keeping an eye out for pickpockets. One of my favorite Paris activities was to scan the crowd on the Metro and decide who was the guy most likely to lunge for my purse. No one did. Paul would say it was because of his protection, but I believe the potential crooks read “screamer” all over my face when they considered me.
“Great I am glad you are here.” Dicle, a young girl from Turkey was leading our tour. An aspiring actress, she talked Airbnb into offering a cocktail tour to get the real vibe of a working-class neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city.
“Here’s Mohammed; he’s joining us too.” Mohammed, dressed in black, stood a little away from the group. He kept his eyes averted and walked in the street instead of cramming onto the sidewalk with us.
Dicle explained to us that the tour was really ours—we could go anywhere we wanted. Pete suggested whiskey, I suggested anything as long as it was pink, and Paul suggested he would decide when he got there. Mohammed, out of the shadows said, “I’d like whiskey too. I’m on the Keto diet.”
“Oh, me too,” Pete said turning around. “I’m at my lowest weight since 20 years ago, 224 pounds.”
Paul and I were quiet. We had just spent two glorious weeks in France gorging on chocolate croissants and café au lait for breakfast, bread for lunch and dinner, butter sauces on our fish, and fries with steak. We washed it all down with dry rose wine whenever the opportunity presented itself. A carafe was less than a whole bottle—at least that’s what we told each other.
“Damn,” Paul muttered. “I’m not the skinniest Klenk brother anymore.”
Bar #1—Dirty, but interesting seating.
We had to duck our heads under a low doorway to get into the first bar. Old, grungy couches hugged the dirty walls and endless techno music made my teeth grind together. The only seats available were little preschool-sized woven straw stools lined up and facing each other. We lowered ourselves down and sat hunched over, our elbows resting on our knees. While sipping our drinks—whiskeys for Pete and Mohammed, a rosy-hued spritzer for me, and an unknown drink for Paul—we relaxed.
“Mohmmad, where are you from?” Dicle asked. She was drinking water.
“Saudi Arabia. I am from there.” He took a long drink from his glass and raised his head. “I like whiskey.”
I practically crawled over Paul’s lap to hear Mohammad’s soft voice.
He was handsome with dark skin, possessed all of his hair (Klenks, not so much), sported expensive clothes, and, I checked, didn’t wear a wedding ring.
“Hey Dicle, I want to go to Turkey. I’ve always wanted to visit there and drink Turkish Coffee,’’ Pete said.
“I know,” she answered. “But, it’s funny, did you hear that it isn’t really from Turkey? The coffee is from Greece!”
“But Turkey got back the meatballs the Swedes stole from them. The recipe was originally Turkish.” Pete was nimble. He could pivot on any conversation. He was an attorney.
“You know what is only in America?” Mohammed asked. We all shook our heads and leaned off our tiny stools to hear him. “Hooters!”
He was right.
Bar #2—Reminiscent of college but with a surprising twist
I trailed behind Paul, Pete, Dicle and Mohammed and fiddled with my phone.
“What are you doing,” Paul asked grabbing my wrap before I stepped on it. “Are you texting?”
“I’m not. I’m taking notes.” Paul looked to the sky as if patience would rain down on him.
We walked into the second bar, coughing through the smoke. We grabbed a table at the back. The table and stools were constructed of pallets. There wasn’t a single cut. At one point I thought Paul went to the restroom, but then he popped up from under the table. He was studying the craftsmanship.
“The bartender doesn’t really make any official cocktails,” Dicle observed. “He’ll make anything you want. Just ask him.”
“Whiskey?” Pete asked.
“Whiskey?” Mohammed echoed.
“Sure,” she answered. “Just ask him.”
Paul ventured to the bar and brought back a margarita presented in a champagne flute. Mohammed and Pete got their whiskey in jelly jars. It was my turn.
“Bonjour,” I pulled myself up on to the bar and shouted over the noise, “make me your best drink.”
The pony-tailed bartender began grabbing bottles above his head and from the tall shelves behind him. When he presented the tall glass to me, it was amber-colored with Thai basil shoved down into the ice. He stuck a sprig of rosemary into the top. I reached for it.
“Wait,” he said. From behind his back he pulled out a butane blow torch. He blasted the rosemary until it turned black and slumped into the drink. “It makes it taste smoky,” he explained as he handed it to me over the sticky bar.
“What’s that?” Pete asked as I struggled to climb up onto my pallet stool.
“A Rosemary Basil Smoky,” I lied and took a long drink through my straw. It was unknown, scary, but still delicious. “Are you okay with the tour?” I asked. I wondered because Pete loved the science and the art of making cocktails. Recently divorced, he was looking for both whimsy and stability in a potential partner—not an easy combination.
“Oh, I gave up long ago, but this is fun.” We clinked glasses.
“I am married,” Mohammed announced holding his glass up to us. “I drank whisky before I came so now I am, what do you call it?”
“Tipsy?” I offered.
“Yes, that is the word.”
I glanced down at my phone in my lap. I was typing words with one finger and swigging my drink during breaks in the conversation.
“My wife wants to see you,” Mohammad said holding his phone aloft in FaceTime mode. I couldn’t see her face as his arm swept across our group, but I shouted,
“Everything is fine.” I imagined her home and alone. “Absolutely fine.”
Bar #3—unremarkable until the shock at the end.
It was after midnight when we reached the third bar. It was quiet with benches pulled up to large tables. We faced each other, and I was finally able to hear Mohammed talk. He loved Paris. He had been coming to the City of Light since 1999 when he graduated from college. He was an investment banker. He was presenting at a conference on Monday. He had been married for a year. After the Keto diet, he explained blushing.
I saw Paul and Pete look at each other behind me. If they had been wearing watches they would have tapped them.
“So, I want to know. Are you like a princess or something?” Dicle asked me.
“What? No, I don’t know what you mean.” I looked down at my black linen palazzo pants with the wide cuffs, my peach silk blouse, and, my hand went immediately to my birthday present, a strand of extra-large freshwater pearls.
“Yes,” Pete and Paul chimed together.
“What do you do?”
“I,” I stumbled over my words. “I work in education, but I’d rather write. Like this.” I held up my phone and showed them the notes I was taking.
“I’ll write a blog when I get home,” I explained.
“Cool. Here’s my email address. Will you send it to me?”
“There’s one more place you might want to go,” Dicle said pulling on her jacket and winding her scarf around her neck. “It’s a speakeasy called Moonshiner.”
“A speakeasy? You mean like in the 1920s?” I felt my pulse beating in my neck.
“Yeah. You just go there. It looks like a pizza place. A guy will let you in. Just go through the refrigerator door.”
Standing outside the bar, Mohammed and Dicle melted away. Paul, Pete, and I had a “discussion”, which actually means I used my princess status to get what I wanted. I didn’t care if it was 1 am, or we had to take a taxi to the airport at an ungodly hour in the morning, or it might be closed. I was going to the speakeasy, even if it meant I would have to create my own Uber account on the spot.
“Are you sure?” The uber driver slowed the car to a stop. Silent warehouses lined the streets. There were no cars, no people, nothing except for a brightly-lit store front with a blinking, neon pizza sign. Inside the window I saw a man sweeping the floor and another man cleaning dishes in the sink.
“Yes.” I threw open the car door and jumped out leaving my wrap tangled in the back seat. I ran up the two steps. I wasn’t cold in the frosty night. “Hi,” I said stepping onto the black and white tiled floor. “I’m here,” I breathed. “I’m here.”
The man with the broom pointed to the back of the store.
“Open it,” Paul said easing the pizza door shut as he and Pete joined me. “Go first.”
I turned the handle on the wood paneled refrigerator door and stepped into a storage closet. Bags of flour and cans of tomato sauce lined metal racks. It was dim and dusty in the room. A plain wooden door stood in front of me.
“Keep going,” Paul said and pushed me gently. My wrap was slung around his neck.
I stretched out my hand, turned the handle, and pushed the door open.
If I had looked hard enough, I believe I might have found Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the crowded room. Jazz music played on an old stand up record player in the corner. The walls were covered in gold chevron-striped wallpaper, and chandelier lights were muted by small lamp shades. People stood at tall tables, sat at the bar, and hid in the depths of wing chairs pulled up to secret corners. The tin ceiling, embossed and polished, reflected the lights behind the bar that illuminated hundreds of bottles of liquor. Candle flames fluttered on every surface creating shadows on the walls. Velvet drapes covered all but a sliver of the night sky outside.
The bartenders were dressed in black with grey vests and bow ties and moved like graceful ice skaters behind the bar. They tossed bottles up, the liquor careening into the glasses. They stirred, measured, crushed, sniffed, eyed, and tasted. We ordered drinks.
Pete whistled low as he tasted his drink. “I’ve waited for this Side Car all night. This is done perfectly.”
“Are you happy?” I asked my husband.
“Are you?” he answered.
“Yes. Except I have to go to the bathroom.” I slid off the too-high bar stool and snaked through the people towards the toilette sign. I hesitated. There were two doors, and it was dark.
“Not that way.” The voice seemed familiar. It was soft and hesitant with a whisper of an accent. With a touch on my arm, he turned me to the left. “Goodnight.” He eased away into the shadows.
I cannot say for sure, but I think it was Mohammed.
We left the Moonshiner at 3 o’clock in the morning. We hugged Pete goodbye. Once again, he walked and we ubered. I watched Paris go by outside the window and thought about all the people I know and love. How many would tremble with excitement at the idea of going to a speakeasy? How many would walk through the pizza restaurant’s refrigerator door and step into a supply closet confident it wasn’t the end? The real question was, why is it so important to me that there be something more on the other side of the door?
“Because you have to get to the other side,” Paul said yawning.
Paul is right. I’ve crossed to the other side. Time is ticking away. I have to decide.
I am missing our meeting tonight, but I know the red wine flight or the 5 o’clock Somewhere margarita at Swing’s will be someone’s choice for the evening. Lift one for me.
I wish you could see what I see as I write. I am perched on a tall stool looking out grand windows that I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach the latch.
Three ornate buildings with sculpted balustrades hovering over the tops of the windows and balconies framed with black, wrought iron railings are close enough neighbors I could say hello without raising my voice. When I stick my head out the window, the view down the street is filled with fluttering awnings, sidewalk tables with neatly folded blankets on the chairs, and light from shops spilling out onto the cobblestone streets.
We are staying at 19 Rue de la Harpe, Saint Michel Notre Dame, a third-floor apartment with stairs so narrow, Paul and I had to walk on our tip toes while carrying our horrendously heavy suitcases. Paul has given in—we will buy one more to get everything home.
Notre Dame is just over our shoulder here on the Isle de la Cite on the Left Bank. Heavy, tolling bells and singing chimes announce the start of every hour. I run to open the window or stop on the sidewalk to listen. All of Notre Dame’s bells are named and tuned to a specific key. I would like to hear Emanuel, hoisted into place in 1681 and weighing 13 tonnes (Conversion needed) but he is only rung on high holidays or moments of great importance. Guess what? What I always called the “clapper” in the bell (forgive me, I know), is actually called the ‘fighter.’ Paul and I are still discussing the physics of who swings what and what gets hit where. (Now the bell image is gone, oui?)
When we were in Normandy on a D-Day tour, I thought of you often. We read those novels on World War II—The Nightingale, the Lilac Girls, All the Light We Cannot See, The Gournsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I saw all the characters we brought to life in our conversations. The small French villages where the resistance fighters smuggled children out in wagons and women planted gardens out of the treasured few seeds they had left, and the long fields where they walked and dreamed of a life beyond the ugliness were real—just as we had discussed.
We have had our ‘near accidents’ as always: we almost hit a cow late at night that wandered out of its field, and, of course, the first thing I thought, ‘I can blog about this!’
We took up every spare place for suitcases in the train car and Paul and I pretended they weren’t ours; and we stared at our host and hostess every morning at the bed and breakfast inn as they grumbled to one another in murderous French. I am not sure if they resented us or they were having troubles in their marriage.
We have a few more days until we leave for home. I am reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway. We have a tour tomorrow on the Roaring Twenties—Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Ford, Eliot, Picasso, Dali—all the places they ate, drank and lived. Gertrude Stein better be on the top of the list—she mentored them all, and of course her lover, Alice B. Toklas.
I’ve never been a Hemmingway fan, but I am loving this book. Remember last month when you asked me ‘Lesley, why are you writing? What are you going to do?’ I didn’t how to answer without stumbling over my words trying to make sense of my writing life. So, I’ll let Hemmingway speak for all writers: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Last night Paul and I ate dinner in a neighborhood bistro called the Alchemist. We ordered the prix fixe dinner that was listed in chalk on the wall. We didn’t know what we were ordering. Paul was curious.
He stood up in the middle of the restaurant and positioned his phone to take a picture of the whole menu written in loopy, smudged handwriting. It was a moment where I experienced what it must be like to be Paul married to me.
“Sit down,” I hissed. “Everyone is looking at you.”
Paul sat down and fiddled with his phone. The Google Translate app could take text and translate it into English. He looked up at me. “It didn’t translate. We’ll have to guess.” We each pick an appetizer—goat cheese stuffed peppers for me and lentil soup for Paul. He put a large spoonful in his mouth and then stopped. “Potato?” He swallowed. “Here,” he said and shoved the spoon between my lips. A marble-size lump rolled onto my tongue.
“Not a potato,” I said biting into it. It melted and broke into pieces. It tasted like everything in the soup in one small little bite. The restaurant owner came over and Paul scooped one of the chunks from the soup and held it out for his inspection.
“Champigon,” he shrugged. “Mushroom.”
Paul and I held hands over the table. “It’s a mushroom,” I said relieved.
“A mushroom,” Paul sighed, happy and satiated, and scraped his bowl clean. “A mushroom.”
The sounds of Paris are the barest whisper to the most frightened wail. Dishes are stacked softly, croissants crumble and flake to the table top, feet shift on the Metro as riders wait for their stop, vespas buzz like bees and jump curbs. The scream of ambulances and police vehicles sound like the ones in Rome and London. I think hard, but in that moment, I cannot remember the sound of our own ambulances at home.
Paul attempts to jaywalk across the teeming streets, but I will no longer follow him. He thought we had time to run across a traffic circle near the Alexander III Bridge, and the stoplight turned. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, and buses merged together behind and to the side of us. We ran, splashing through rain puddles, and I yelled, “Shiiiit, Fuuuck, Pauuul.” Now I shake my head and point my finger at him when we become separated on different sides of the street.
Touching Paris is best done in shops while caressing silk scarves laid out in overlapping swaths like splayed decks of cards. I rub cashmere wraps against my cheek and wonder if perhaps I can get can one more if we buy another suitcase. Two different women have taken off my over garments, eager for me to see the grace of the scarf wrapped around my throat, the drop of a sweater against my leg, or the elegance of fur snuggled against my neck.
“Here, here,” one woman fretted, unwinding my scarf and throwing it to Paul. She pulls on the back of my collar and eases my coat off. This too, she tosses to my husband. He sits, refusing to remove the 5 euro hat he bought while my back was turned. He hunches on a low stool and glowers at the carpeted floor. It’s even worse when he decides to wait outside. He paces back and forth in front of windows always staying within view.
“It’s beautiful,” I say as I admire it in the mirror. It’s a black swing coat with black fur ringing the neck and circling the cuffs. She takes my hands and tucks them together so it looks like I have a muff between my fingers.
“It’s 500 euros, Darling,” she coos. “A coat for life, a coat to remember Paris.” I feel myself weakening. If I average the cost of the coat across over my lifetime it begins to seem like a deal. The saleslady wanders away to allow Paul and I time to negotiate.
“It’s fox,” Paul said holding my things out. “The fur is black fox.” I shed the coat instantly and hand it back to her. She whisks it away, cradling it in her arms like a wedding dress.
In Paris it is as if you cannot separate a smell from what it is or what it will become. The Seine’s waters are brackish, quick, and malodorous, moving and churning towards a port I cannot imagine. On the sidewalk at night we walk through clouds of flour that hold the promise of tomorrow’s croissant. Meat steams on plates, and unlike the States, swim in pools of au jus. Flowers on the street corners smell spicy and unusual. Buckets of Birds of Paradise, spiky and exotic, stand tall and graceful, while hydrangeas, heavy and full, are unmovable. I feel displaced, lost, adrift. Decades ago my children and I would make Christmas cookies together and the flour drifted over us in a haze. I did not know I would walk through a cloud of flour in so different a place and time. Similarly, on my wedding day, I was unaware that the flowers I carried in my simple bouquet would someday lay in my gloved hand on a freezing Paris morning. Although aromas both linger and flee, they can unseat you and wash over you with memories made then and now.
The taste, sound, touch, and smell of Paris layer over one another like a tapestry, and it is impossible to pull the threads apart once they are bound together. To see Paris, however, is different. The enormous buildings, hundreds and more years old, feature copper cornices galvanized into green. The Louvre’s glittering pyramid looks like it has always been a part of the eight-century year old museum. Notre Dame’s Gothic spire and silent towers come to life when the bells toll. But, it is the moment you catch sight of her that make you swallow the lump in your throat and think to yourself, ‘It was worth the wait.’
The Eiffel Tower looms vast over the Seine. She is more substantial than I thought she would be. Her base is massive, and the interlocking metal skeleton appears determined as she climbs towards the top. She becomes graceful as the legs merge into the center. When I was in junior high school, I tacked a poster of her standing in the face of a setting sun to my bedroom wall. She was my totem, my affirmation that my romantic soul (so out of proportion), would someday find legitimacy. Never did I think it would take until my 52nd birthday to stand beneath her and watch her illuminating lights glow in the foggy night. I looked at Paul and noticed the shine in his eyes. He looked just like I imagined he did as a small boy on Christmas morning. We clutch each other in the cold and laugh and kiss and laugh again.
I am convinced I can do anything in Paris now. I have tasted a soup in one marvelous bite, donned a fur coat whose secret made my heart blanch for being unaware, thrilled at the clash of traffic causing me to curse at the top of my lungs, discovered the allure of a scent, like a siren, that calls me back and leads me forward, but mostly, it is the Grande Dame herself who said, ‘You were right to wait. Your life is unrelenting and beautifully so.’
We’re here. We’re in Paris. I’ve already overcome my initial fears: to find my luggage, secure a taxi, negotiate the language barrier, put in the correct codes to the building, and turn the key in the right lock of the right flat, and figure out how to use the toilet. I was afraid to face a bidet. I don’t quite get it. After 24 hours of flying, sitting, and eating food I normally wouldn’t eat, I need a glass of rose and a salad.
I look haggard in the mirror. I mean bad. I slather on my new Estee Lauder makeup, and I recognize my face begin to take shape. We decide to go out and find some food, so we press the elevator button—impair, meaning the odd floors—and wait for it to arrive. Paul looks at me and cocks his head.
“You don’t have any lips.” He sounds lost. We abandon the elevator and go back into the flat. I find lipstick and carefully outline my lips and fill them in.
“That’s better,” Paul said and pressed the button for the elevator.
I think of our other trips to Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Italy, Malta, Sicily, and Tunisia. Not for a minute did I worry about not fitting in in any of those places. I was the usual Lesley—marching through the streets, looking over my shoulder at Paul lagging behind, engaging with the locals, smiling, and making new friends.
So, what is different about France?
I’m afraid that my big approach to life will be too much. I’ll offend the sensibilities of a measured society filled with subtle cultural norms that I could blow out of the water without meaning to.
So, we arrive at a bar called Barracuda, and I couldn’t help myself. “Do you speak English?” I sputtered to the hostess. I intended to lead with classic “Bonjour, Madame”, but the true Lesley rocketed to the surface.
“Of course,” she said with a big smile. I had to stop myself from hugging her. Over a simple meal of salad and bread and cheese, we chatted with the bartender/barista, hostess, waitress, and patrons at the next table. I advised them of Airbnb’s new “Experiences” offerings where photographers, historians, tour guides, chefs, and artists could design a class—an experience—and market it on the website. A female photographer from Finland who speaks four languages, squeezed my arm and said,
“I am so glad I met you! I’m wanting to find direction in my life. You’ve given me a new idea.”
Me? I helped a woman who speaks four languages and knows how to use a fancy camera?
Paul and I walked around the block looking in on boulangeries, bistros, little grocery stores, and spas. We were almost back to the flat when I walked past a store window and screeched to a halt.
“Paul,” I said miffed. “Look.” I gestured at my clothes.
“What?” He was so tired his eyes were glazed over and deep red.
“Did you notice my dress?” He shook his head and then looked down at my legs. My tights and the dress were glued together with static electricity and they bunched up around my waist like an inner tube.
So, you ask how Paul and I decided to go to Paris with less than a month to plan. You can thank my friend, Linda. It’s all her fault.
At my job I have to apply to take vacation leave, and when I submitted a leave request to go to Mexico for Thanksgiving, my supervisor wrote a little note at the bottom: “I hope you know this is not Thanksgiving week.”
“Linda,” I called from the bowels of my office. “When’s Thanksgiving?”
“The 22nd,” she replied.
“No, it’s not. It’s the 29th, right? The last week of November.” I was right. I knew I was right.
“Except if there are five weeks in November. Thanksgiving is always the 4th Thursday of November.”
“I thought it was always the last Thursday in November.” My voice quavered.
In seconds, I was at her desk. “Are you kidding me?”
She pulled the little calendar off the wall next to her computer. She flipped past October and showed me November. In tiny little script, Thanksgiving was printed on the 22nd.
At home I pulled up our travel documents for Mexico. The week of Thanksgiving I had reserved a room in Zihuatanejo, but my airplane tickets were for the next week. I had a place to stay but no way to get there and a way to get there but no place to stay.
The woman on Alaska Airlines was sympathetic. “I really want to use those miles up. Are you sure I can’t change our tickets?”
“No, Ma’am. Since the time is so close, the tickets are prohibitively expensive.”
“Well,” I said aloud in our empty house, “Where else could we go?” Silence. Then the sound of clicking started. Her fingers went faster and faster. Then I heard the triumphant sound of the victory click.
“How about Paris?” She asked. “If you fly Icelandic Air I can even seat you in first class for part of it.”
“Paris?” It was getting dark outside and I didn’t know when Paul would be home. “Book it,” I said urgently. “Right now.”
We were going to Paris. Paul would be okay with it, wouldn’t he? It wasn’t Mexico, but, Paris. We’d been married almost 20 years (if you stretched it a tiny bit, like three years). He would be fine with it. I heard the garage door go up.
“Are we almost done?” I whispered.
“Yes, Mrs. Klenk, you are going to Paris.” She hit three more keys. “It’s on the way to your email account. Have a fabulous time.”
“Hi Honey, I am home.” Paul flipped the lights on and he saw the computer up and the phone on speaker mode. He leaned against the door and sighed. “Where are we going?”
“Paris,” I smiled. “I knew you’d be on board. We’re even going first class.” His face brightened. “For part of it,” I smiled again and slunk in my chair.
So, for the last three weeks I have been focused on making this trip happen. I booked three different apartments and canceled two. A lovely surprise came out of nowhere, and a dear friend’s daughter-in-law offered her flat for the first part of our trip. I ordered 12 Paris books and maps from Amazon (our postal guy kindly shoves them in our mailbox so they don’t appear on the porch), I purchased tickets to a cabaret show, I booked a Hemmingway and Fitzgerald Roaring Twenties Bar Tour, signed up for a photo shoot at the Eiffel Tower (only $100 bucks and well worth it if I don’t have to let Paul take selfies of my turkey-skin neck), a Normandy tour of the beaches of D-Day, train tickets to Caen, a rental car to go to Mont St. Michel, and I bought clothes—five different wraps, three pair of boots, four sweaters, two jackets with furry collars, and, I don’t know, a whole lot more, including a suitcase so large I can rest my elbow on it in a standing position.
Paul, on the other hand, was quiet. Too quiet. I decided to wait until he was watching TV and sneak out to the car to smuggle in my shopping bags. I bought him snappy shirts in peach, pink, and light green for “nights out.” He looked at them and didn’t say much. He stared at his phone and flicked a map on the screen whenever a commercial came on. I waited.
“Okay,” he announced. “I’m good to go.”
“What?” I was on Amazon deciding if I needed a green wrap to go with something I vaguely remembered I ordered that was green.
“I can get us around Paris now.”
“I’ve been studying the map, and I know where everything is.” He tapped his head. “It’s all here.”
Thank God, I thought. He probably hasn’t even noticed all of the clothes.
“Paul, there’s something we need to get you as soon as we get to Paris.”
“Hmm.” NCIS was on. Maybe I could squeak this one past him.
“Men wear scarves over there. They are not deer hunting scarves. They’re silk scarves. Remember Pete, your brother, wears one?”
“I’m not wearing a scarf.” He didn’t look at me.
“Well,” I protested.
“Nope. Not going to do it.”
For the time being I have given it up. I am so far in the win category with my “Paris Prep” I will be more strategic as far as the scarf goes. Maybe the City of Light will move him. It’s too bad he doesn’t have a turkey-skin neck like me; he’d have a scarf already.
The first time we bought a boat we thought we would create lasting memories for our children. The second time we believed mooring a vessel in front of our house would magically make boating effortless.
We were wrong—twice.
Fifteen years ago, we bought a 22-foot, 1987 Sea Swirl that, once in the water, rode like a crappy, coughing, loose-in-the-joints, convertible car. We owned the boat for two years. The kids, ages 7, 9, and 11, tried everything to get out of the trips. One time our daughter developed a mysterious rash that I believe she contracted by rubbing her face all over the cat, our oldest son held up his broken thumb and declared he couldn’t get his cast wet, and our youngest, well, he informed us he was sure he was going to poop, but he didn’t know when.
We were clueless the first summer. We slammed into a sandbar forcing us to huddle in the fart-filled air of the cuddy until the propeller sprung free. We tied up on a state-owned island and challenged the kids to make it around the sand before the tide came in. Somehow we lost them in the bushes and found them strung in trees yelling for help. Then, there is the memory of the boys tapping me on the arm and opening their mouths revealing a bevy of tiny crabs trying to escape the tongues that quivered with laughter. Unforgettable.
The second summer we bought a towable water toy for tubing. Our ancient, wheezing boat died in the middle of a lake and we were surrounded by a swarm of jet skis and boats that, collectively, created a high-pitched whine worse than a dentist’s drill. They rocketed past us sending cascades of water into the boat. The kids hid in the cuddy afraid they would be recognized. We waved for help and someone towed us back to the boat launch. My husband was humiliated and swore we’d never have a boat again.
It was my idea to get another boat. We were empty-nesters. Our kids were gone. It would be the two of us cruising on the calm, clear water, and our darling dog could hang off the side barking at the waving people on shore. My husband bought it hook, line and sinker, and we purchased a sleek, little Bayliner in mid-June. It was so pretty. Our friends patted it and hinted for invitations. We were vague, promising nothing. Now that we actually owned a boat we dreaded going boating. We remembered.
It sat in our driveway for six weeks.
Six weeks. My husband worked 12-hour days, we traveled to the East Coast to visit our grand baby, we helped prepare our daughter’s yard for her wedding, and we tried to catch our youngest son before he left for a trip to a foreign country. It was late July. Then, out of nowhere, we had a rare free evening and I couldn’t think fast enough to come up with a pleasant chore around the house that could eat up the hours until sunset.
We were boat owners. We should want to boat, shouldn’t we? I looked around the yard for the cat. Maybe there was still time to bury my face in her sleek fur. The reality was our desire to own a boat was a dream—the first time and the second time. Our motivation was the unrelenting march of years that now had forced us into our 50s. We were having a mid-life crisis. We wanted to be those boating people—you know the ones. Their kids can stand up on the wake board the first time and the adults don’t have to suck in their stomachs while wearing their bathing suits.
The dog jumped into the car, tongue hanging out, head cocked, anticipating our adventure. At least he looked the part. We put the boat in the water—my husband saying ‘hold the line’ and me answering ‘you mean the rope?’ and took off from the downtown dock and headed towards our little inlet.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked. After years of marriage I had discovered the open-ended statement was a gentle entry into what I really wanted to ask—‘what the hell are we doing?’
“We’re eventually tying up to the buoy,” he said cutting the motor.
“We have a buoy,” I murmured to the dog. “Did you know that?” The dog was miserable. He hid under my husband’s legs the entire trip. Panting heavily, I am pretty sure he knew he had to poop and it was imminent.
“Get ready,” I heard my husband say over the sound of the rising propeller. “This is as close as I can get. We have to get the rowboat now.”
There was still a vast expanse of water between us and the shore. He dropped the anchor. “Are you sure it is going to stay put?” I whispered. “What happens if it just floats away?”
“It’s not going to float away,” my husband paused. “I think. I hope.” He lips were set. “Let’s go.” He handed me his glasses. “Let me get settled in the water. Then you can hand them to me.” The bifocals were new.
I forgot to hand him the glasses. I stepped into the water and sunk into mud that reached my calves. I panicked and grabbed for him. We teeter-tottered back and forth until we eased into a upright position.
“Honey,” I said, seaweed clinging to my chest. “I’m so sorry.” We stared down into the water. The glasses were gone. The tide was going out and the mud was churning in the waves.
It was cold, the rocks hurt my feet, and I felt terrible. I deeply regretted my enthusiastic sales pitch that brought us to this moment. The dog launched himself off the side of the boat and swam madly to shore. Once he landed on the beach he bolted for the bushes.
Leaving muddy footprints in the dust of the bulkhead, we grabbed the rowboat we had stashed behind a weathered stump. We carried it down to the beach where I dropped my end before we got to the water. Glaring, my husband pointed at a yucky seat. “Sit. Do not stand up.” He waded back to the boat and pulled up the anchor. I sat in the bucking, aluminum boat all the way to the buoy. While he secured the line and snapped the buttons on the cover, I held vigil in the moldy interior and watched for spiders. Finally, we paddled back to the beach. It took a while. We kept going in circles. In a few choice words, my husband informed me my strokes weren’t matching his. In silence, we dumped the rowboat into its hiding place.
Back at the house, my husband had a beer. I had a shower. The dog hid in the laundry room shuddering every few minutes.
Later, at 11:00 pm, I said, “the tide’s all the way out. Let’s go look.”
It was a ridiculous idea, but the glasses could be lodged in some rocks. We strapped on head lamps and tiptoed down to the beach in the quiet darkness. He took one side and I took another. The moon was almost full and lights sparkled across the bay. We heard the water slapping the side of our boat. It was still there. No luck with the glasses, however.
“We can look every time we come down,” I offered.
“Yeah,” he sighed.
“The kids are going to think it is funny.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Another story for the boating collection.”
Our kids’ experiences are ensconced in the past, but our future as middle-age boaters is still an unwritten page. When the boat leaves the safety of the anchored buoy, we are rudderless and have to make our own way. We have to let go of the desire to be the glamorous couple effortlessly steering through someone else’s messy wake. We are the messy wake! When it is just the two of us (I am fairly certain the dog is done) we can release our stomachs, pour a glass of wine in a shady cove and laugh over our errors and triumphs. The best part? We don’t know the stories of the future. Let’s just hope they don’t involve glasses falling overboard—which our neighbor found by the way.
When my family sits around the littered remains of a holiday dinner and drinks coffee from the thin china cups we use once a year, we tell stories tightly woven together by time’s erasure and creation of memory. My brother burying my mother’s real pearl earrings in a treasure chest in the grass, my father sitting with a cowboy astride a horse, a photograph that later arrived C.O.D. by mail, and my mother clutching a porcelain doll she received from Santa the Christmas her father passed away. Those are the stories that belong to them, but when I recount my memory that I almost died when I was seven, my father shakes his head and pushes his chair away from the table. He doesn’t believe my stories. He smiles indulgently at my mother as if they agree. But there is one memory my mother and I share, and it is the truth. Why she doesn’t speak up and confirm my story, I am not sure. Perhaps the habits of the past still cling to her like fragile paper whose folds are too delicate to open.
“Play on the swing set,” my mother said. “Your brother will be up soon.” She looked tired as she smoothed my hair. She was responsible for so much back then. Not only did she have to raise two children, but she had to give dinner parties, and keep the house so it looked like a magazine. And, she had to be a wife. In 1973, that was a job in itself.
I waited until she went into the house and wandered to the neat edge of our property where my father had fertilized, watered and mowed his piece of land. I lifted my shoe with the sensible leather laces and stepped over the strict green line. I did not look back. I trailed my fingers through the swaying strands that arched over my head. I felt my heart drumming in my chest as I pushed further and further into the wild growth. Grey grasshoppers whirred crazily past my path, tangled in the skirt of my dress, and were like light bits of rough paper as I swept them off. A young black garter snake slithered under my foot just as I lifted my shoe. Startled, I stopped.
The meadow ended at a teasing creek that bounced and jostled past rocks strewn haphazardly in the water. Painted Lady butterflies, orange and black wings fanning in the baking heat, sunned themselves on the dry tops of boulders. Mayfly, thousands of them, danced in a tight swarm above the water unaware that their life cycle would end in a few short hours.
The creek was low and there was enough room for me to stand on a log and peer into the water. Concentrating, I leaned my arm in up to the shoulder to touch a brilliant red leaf trapped under the surface. The fall was slow. The log rolled as my weight shifted with my arm, and I went face first into the creek. It must have been a still hole of water I fell in. I didn’t hit bottom, not right away. But, soon, the heaviness of my shoes and the weight of my soaked dress bore down on me. Then, I remember, there was peacefulness.
I floated on my back and looked overhead at the canopy of trees leaning towards each other whispering and praying. The pale blue sky was framed by yellow aspen leaves, futile bare branches, and the green of a hill far away. My eyes moved side to side watching Emperor dragonflies with iridescent green and violet wings flit and hover above my face. The gentle water gurgled in my ears and my hands bobbed in the current. I think about it now, and I must have been terrified. I think too of how alone I was. I think last of how I might have drowned. But I didn’t. Finally, my small, frantic fingers found a branch and I pulled myself out of the creek.
I howled silently like babies do when they are so stunned by pain or fear they cannot make a sound. Stumbling, I ran through the grass, the blades tearing at my legs, my eyes blurred with tears and mucky water. I found my mother.
She shushed me, stripping the muddy clothes from my body. She drew a bath and washed my hair, rinsing it carefully by cupping her hand so the soap would not run down into my eyes. She dressed me again and laid me down on my bed. As I fell asleep, I heard my brother’s wail as he woke from his nap. My mother’s patient footsteps slipped past my door.
And that is all I remember. When I talk about the day I almost died when I was seven, my father shakes his head. “It didn’t happen,” he says. But I see it in the picture of me standing proudly in front of the yellow school bus in my new blue Montgomery Ward dress. The watercolor sky, the church of trees, my hair floating like fallen straw on water, it is all there.
“Where are we going?” Paul asked as the ancient public bus bumped over a particularly deep pot hole on the highway heading south of Zihuatanejo.
“Cooking with Carmen,” I read off the itinerary. (I make one for every trip).
“And, where did you find out about this class?” Paul questioned. We both flew in the air. I felt my teeth grind together when we landed.
“The internet. We’re meeting Alejandro and Carmen at their house in Los Achote.” I fluffed my skirt up to get some air. The 100% humidity was making it difficult to breathe.
“Did you check with a company to make sure it was legit?” Paul asked.
“Of course,” I said offended. “They’re recommended on a local site.” I folded the papers and tossed them in my bag.
“Okay, I’ve got Roberto on speed dial.”
“Ha,” was my response. Roberto was our taxi driver turned best buddy.
Paul and I stood alone on the side of the highway where we had been ejected by the wheezing, laboring bus. Los Achote was deserted. A few chickens clucked in the bushes and a faded Coca Cola sign stood in front of a building. It looked like any other small Mexican village. The roads were dusty and rutted. The houses were small and built creatively out of all types of building materials including wooden beams, concrete blocks, and rusted metal panels. The houses meandered along the street, some hidden in tall weeds others in plain view hugging the road.
“Welcome, I am Alejandro,” a small man appeared from a path through some weeds. Paul and I stopped. We squeezed hands.
“Hello,” I said picking my way through the underbrush. Paul shook hands with Alejandro. “Come,” he said. “Follow me.” We trailed along behind him parting the grass in front of us.
“Do you want to leave?” Paul murmured over his shoulder.
“I paid ninety bucks,” I said under my breath.
“It better be good.”
“It’s an adventure,” I replied.
I asked Paul once if it would have been better if he had married a calm, more steady woman. He actually stopped to think about it.
“No,” he confessed. “It would have been boring. Maybe it would be nice not to have so many surprises though.”
He got the silent treatment for the rest of the day. Adventures and surprises are a hair breath apart; he knows that. It is all in how you see it.
We approached Alejandro and Carmen’s house. It didn’t fit with the rest of the neighborhood. Even though it stood tightly closed with locked gates and iron bars on the windows, two sparkling clean cars were parked in the driveway. Even the hubcaps were painfully scrubbed.
Paul and I ducked our heads under the front doorway and entered the dim front room. Fans circled slowly overhead. The blinds were drawn and the wood floor shone with furniture polish.
It looked like an Ashley Furniture store ad. Expensive leather couches anchored the room and a large flat screen TV hung on the wall. Fake flowers were plunged in vases and TV trays stood at attention in the corner. Doilies, hundreds of doilies, covered every surface of the room.
“Welcome,” Carmen said coming into view. “Please come in.” She was a head taller than her husband. Her chin was lifted in the air and she wore reading glasses on the end of her nose. I could barely detect her Spanish accent. Alejandro’s was pronounced.
I tried peering around her to see into the rest of the house, but Paul grabbed my dress and pulled me back. I could see the set of his jawline. Adventure or surprise—he didn’t care at the moment. He just wanted me to behave.
Carmen waved her arm towards her spotless kitchen. “Please come and wash your hands.” She started to lead us to the kitchen and I scurried past her to the hall bathroom I could see from the front room. “Please this way,” Carmen fretted, but I was already beyond her and pushing open the door.
“Paul, Honey, you need to wash your hands,” I called. He came in the bathroom and eased the door shut.
“Do not do this,” he fumed splashing water and soaping his hands.
“Act like a detective,” he said. “This is not the time. This is their home.” He pulled a towel sharply off the rack.
Next to us the shower curtain fluttered. We heard a long, deep sigh.
“Paul’s someone’s in the shower.” I reached for the light fabric curtain. My hand hesitated and stopped.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said staring at the curtain. “I shouldn’t look.” A high window filtered light down into the tub and shower combo. There was the outline of a stool with narrow legs. A large mass sat on the stool. It hunched over like an old woman.
“Paul, someone is in there!” I let out a tiny whimper. The form shifted. We heard clicking like the sound of knitting needles touching delicately together. Click, click, pause, click, click. It stopped.
“Hola,” a voice intoned barely above a whisper.
“Hola,” I echoed my nose almost touching the curtain.
I wrapped my fingers around Paul’s arm and dug my fingernails into his skin.
“Ouch,” Paul glared. I put my finger to my lips.
“Please come out now,” Carmen called. “It is time for the lesson.”
As we left the bathroom, a rustling sound fluttered the shower curtain again. It sound just like a woman shaking her dress.
“We are making Chicharron Albest. It is my secret recipe made of pork and special ingredients.” Carmen clasped a large cutting board to her breast and then carefully set it down on the immaculate white countertop. Alejandro had draped himself over a chair at one end of the table. Paul and I sat glued together with stiff backs at the other end of the table. An entire soccer team could have sat in between us. The glass tabletop was spotless, devoid of any dirt or finger prints.
I had made a decision. Carmen was hiding her elderly mother in the shower for fear the woman’s ancient cackling would drive us away. It was likely influenced by my love of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s novel, but I stood by my supposition. ‘The abuela probably has to eat in the shower too,’ I surmised, my face a mask as I watched Carmen carefully choose her cooking utensils like a surgeon selecting operating instruments.
I was convinced she was forced to sit in the shower and knit doilies while the cooking lesson took place. In Hispanic culture grandmothers are revered by their families and sheltered in loving homes. I had decided that Carmen was the exception.
“Who will go first?” Carmen entreated. “You,” she said smiling and crooking her finger at me. “What is your name?”
“Lesley,” I gulped.
“You will chop garlic. You have done that, yes?” I thought about revealing that we had pint-sized jars of minced garlic in the U.S. but decided it wasn’t wise.
“Even size,” she instructed as I clumsily clomped the butcher knife. “Smaller.” I took a deep breath.
“I’m left-handed. It makes everything harder,” I looked up at her bravely. “Especially chopping.”
“Let me have it.” Carmen diced the garlic into unrecognizable small bits.
“You?” She gestured to my husband.
He cleared his throat. “Paul.”
“You will do the onion.” Paul stood at the cutting board waiting for his turn.
“Do you have a lot of cooking lessons with tourists?”
“Yes,” Carmen stated flatly.
“Yes,” Alejandro repeated.
Paul began chopping the onion with careful strokes.
“More quickly,” she ordered. “It will be even if you go quickly.” Paul chopped and chopped. The raw onion smell filled the room and tears mixed with the sweat rolling down the side of his face.
“So, Carmen, does your mother live with you?” I probed.
Carmen smashed a garlic glove with the heel of her hand and the side of the butcher knife. Paul kept his head down frantically chopping the remains of the white onion.
“My mother is a drunk,” Carmen said without emotion.
“Her mother is a drunk,” Alejandro repeated.
“We lived in Mexico City and my brother tricked her. He had her sign a paper saying she would buy a house in Los Achotes.” Carmen turned on the gas, and a flame erupted into the air.
“She didn’t have any money,” Carmen dismissed, flinging the minced garlic and the shredded onions into the pan.
“She didn’t have any money,” Alejandro murmured.
“But she signed the paper and my brother made us honor her debt.” Carmen’s biceps bulged as she swirled the onions and garlic in the pan.
“The debt,” Alejandro said laying his head on the table.
The sound of a delighted giggle came from the bathroom. Alejandro strode through the living room and shut the bathroom door. Carmen turned and faced us with a giant cleaver held over her head.
“Now we cut the meat. Come,” she ordered. “You will start first.”
I struggled to my feet. I was shaking. She held the cleaver out to me.
“You hold it like this.” She wrapped my fingers handle and shook it firmly. “Now, chop. Rapido!”
The meat was tough and dried. Stained a deep brownish-red, it was like trying to chop beef jerky. There was a large lump that defeated even the cleaver.
“That is not a bone. This meat is already cooked. Here, taste,” she picked up a piece of the meat and held it to my lips.
“Paul, come chop. I have to go to the bathroom.” As I fled the kitchen, the meat, onions, and garlic sizzled in the silence. Even the dust motes in the dim air were waiting.
I shut the door behind me and turned on the faucet to drown out my voice.
“Hello,” I stammered.
“Hello,” the bobbing and weaving shadow behind the shower curtain replied.
“Are you there?” I consoled.
“Are you there?”
I stood, my heart pounding out of my chest, and willed myself to pull back the curtain. The hunched form seemed to shake its head back and forth.
“Can I do anything? Are you okay?” I pleaded.
“Okay,” it breathed. I flushed the toilet.
“Adios,” I whispered.
Carmen set a doilie in front of each of us and placed our plates on them. She put the bowls of meat and a container of frothy green liquid in front of us. She went to the oven and pulled out a basket of tortillas. Tears dripped from the corners of my eyes as I ate.
“What is wrong? Is it the meat?” she growled.
“No, Carmen. It is the onions,” I said. “Paul chopped them too uneven.”
We ate everything, shoveling it into our mouths as fast as we could. It was delicious and if I could have smuggled the frothy green stuff home I would have gladly. Carmen and Alejandro sat at the far end of the table with stony faces. They could hardly wait until we were gone.
“So, Roberto,” Paul said pulling his door shut. “Is there any way a Mexican couple would keep their abuela in the bath tub while they were teaching a cooking class?”
“Paul?” He turned abruptly around in his seat to stare at my husband. “No, I don’t think so. But, they might keep a parrot in there. To keep it quiet so it wouldn’t interrupt.”
“Ha,” Paul crowed. “It was a parrot, of course. Lesley thought it was an abuela.”
“Well, Lesley could be right,” Roberto acknowledged. “We don’t want our loco abuelas getting out and hurting themselves. Perhaps it could have been an abuela.” He smiled at me in the rear view mirror. Roberto is such a good guy. He gets me.
Then I remembered. Paul said there was a difference between adventures and surprises, did he not?
“Okay, how many parrots do you know are fluent in English and Spanish?”
That shut them up.
“Okay, let’s work through this and come to a reasonable and logical conclusion.” Paul and I were swinging in hammocks tucked under a thatched roof of a beach side restaurant. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? I was ready to come out swinging to defend my abuela theory.
“Let’s look at the evidence,” Paul said passing me a margarita. “Go, Nancy Drew.”
“Someone crocheted all of those doilies,” I started strong.
“Carmen in her spare time,” Paul pushed off with his big toe.
“No way. She is constantly cleaning and cooking.”
“I am not dignifying that with answer,” I retorted. “Point to me. Next piece of evidence. What was the figure behind the shower curtain?”
“Parrot in a cage.”
“Woman on a stool. No points. We didn’t look behind the curtain.” We sipped our drinks.
“Clicking knitting needles? I offered.
“Bored parrot pacing his bar and clicking his ugly toes,” Paul smacked in satisfaction. “Point.”
“Rustling of clothes?” I continued.
“Beating of wings.” Paul sounded bored. “Point.”
“No. You’ve never worn a skirt that you can rustle on a hot day. Point.”
“The deep and heartfelt sigh.” I waited.
“Old, sad parrot.” I swung for him and missed.
“Hey, careful. You don’t want to spill that. You’d have to get up and get another one.”
“What about the fact that she could speak both Spanish and English? How more human can you get?” I countered.
“Bilingual parrot,” Paul said his eyes closed. I socked him hard. “Ouch. Why’d you do that?”
“Because,” I stopped. I didn’t know why.
“We’re on vacation and we had fun today, didn’t we? I thought it was great.” He came over to sit in my hammock. “You did a great job finding that class.”
“Get out of my hammock. There is no way this will hold the both of us.” But it did. We swung gently in the (thankfully) oversized hammock and sipped our frozen and salty drinks until our foreheads ached.
“I have one more piece of evidence,” I said sitting on the edge of the hammock. “What about that crazy giggle when Carmen said her mother was a drunk?”
“Comedian parrot?” Paul asked.
I stood up. The hammock flew aloft and dumped Paul onto the sand.
“Hey,” he said surprised. I walked away without looking back. I wiggled two fingers to the bartender. Time for another margarita before our next adventure.
Oh, where to begin…I texted a few friends a snippet of this story thinking it was probably an inappropriate event to share with the world (Facebook) even with context. As it evolved into chapter two, I thought, why not? Why not tell the blogging world about a story that calls to mind college days, desperate moments having to do with immediate bathroom issues, and, quick, probably not well-thought out decisions. Why not?
A restaurant in the bottom floor of one of the oldest hotels in town, Hotel Del Pescador, has a two-for-one margarita special all day long. In Zihuantanejo, restaurant owners, street vendors, and beach hawkers all call out to us, “Lady, Gentleman, come, drink, eat, and buy our fine things. Come now, we make margaritas for you. “
Duh, we went.
Two necklaces, one pair of earrings, one family of stone turtles (I’m still trying to figure how many there are in total), four shirts for the boys, three dresses for the girls, and suddenly, I have to pee. Bad.
I’ve only had two margaritas which is entirely manageable.
I go to the bathroom at the back of the restaurant. I saunter into the first stall I see. Mistake, Paul’s mom tells me. ‘Always check to make sure there is enough paper.’
I admit that would have been a good idea. I closed the stall door behind me and slide the door lock to the right. The door lock falls apart in my hand. I catch it. It can wait. I really have to pee. As I hunched over the toilet letting no part of my body touch it (thank you, Amber for the squat exercises last week), I hold the little piece of metal and stare up at the door latch. I’m not sure what to do. I spin the toilet paper thing around and nothing comes out. I begin to realize I am facing a bit of a problem. I drip dry while I ponder my dilemma. I was a prisoner in the stall.
I stood up, adjusted the dampness, and concentrated on the non-functioning door latch. I shoved the little piece of metal into the slot where it had broken off and twisted it quickly. Nope. The door latch didn’t move.
I looked around at the stall. It was clean, actually really clean for Mexican standards. I looked down at the floor and winced. Not so much. Plus, there was only about a two foot gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. I shook once more and bent down to my knees. It strikes me then. In 1987, I was visiting my cousin at WSU and we crossed the Idaho state border because we could drink alcohol before we were twenty-one. Then too, there was a bathroom stall malfunction and I had emerged from the floor like a creature from the swamp. Why, thirty years apart, was I forced to get on my hands and knees and crawl under the door of the bathroom stall because of a door lock malfunction?
It couldn’t be helped, so I just did it. I crawled under the door and snaked my way out of the stall. At the last minute my shirt scrunched up and I was bare skin on the floor of the Mexican bathroom. I immediately thought to myself. ‘Wait until I tell Paul.’ It is a good sign in our marriage that I can hardly wait to tell my husband about the most horrifying and hilarious moments in my life. I put the broken half of the lock next to the sink, pulled my shirt down, and fluffed my humidity-curled hair. I cringed when I realized I now had bathroom floor gook in my red tresses as if it were hair product.
“We have to go,” I said to Paul when I reached the sand. “Now.” The various parts of me had slowed in their drip-drying process as the full force of the 100% humidity hit me. “Trust me, it’s important.”
“Whatever,” Paul said in a happy, margarita-induced stage. We paid, left, and hiked the 166 stairs to our hotel. Somewhere between step 25 and 100, I belted out into a high-pitched whine an explanation of what had happened in the bathroom stall.
“Are you going to laugh?” I demanded.
“No, I am scared of what might happen if I say anything.”
“You are so in trouble,” I said.
“I just have one question,” Paul said shying away from the possible blows. “Are you going to change your underwear?”
So, would a normal person go back to the same restaurant knowing full well it was a possibility she might have to use the restroom again? Absolutely.
Four days later, we were walking past the restaurant where the whole debacle had happened.
“Hey, we remember you, two margaritas for one price this day too!” The waiter called to us holding out a chair in the sand.
I looked at Paul. “Do you think they know it was me?” I whispered.
“You mean the person who locked everyone out of the stall?” he asked.
“Shh, quit talking so loud.” I glared at him with narrowed eyes. “Your life could get so miserable,” I threatened coolly just under my breath.
We had barely finished our first margarita when my body signaled it was time—urgently—to go to the bathroom. My eyes bugged out.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
Paul began laughing and struggling for breath. He waved his hand not looking at me. Afraid to look at me.
I rushed to the back of the restaurant. I pushed open the door and automatically threw open the door to the stall I had destroyed only days before. I slammed the door shut. Someone had used gorilla glue and thoroughly installed the door latch again. I shoved the lock, banging it shut firmly.
Blowing air out of my mouth, my quads clenched tightly (thanks again, Amber), I prepared to hunch down over the seat. A slow heat burned through me. I had a big problem. I was wearing a “romper”. For those of us who remember the 1980s, it is a one-piece jumpsuit. There was no way out of it unless I could figure out how to get the zipper down. Same stall. Different problem.
I managed to pull off a contortionist move and get it unzipped half way down my back. Then, I shimmied it down over my hips. The fabric strained and I could see daylight between the seams of the zipper. I was not going to pull this off in a hunched position. I lowered myself to the toilet seat. (Sorry, Amber). I didn’t care what germs I would carry with me on my clothes. I leaned over to pull the toilet paper.
“Mom, I wailed. “How could this happen again?” No toilet paper. Not a single sheet. Could it get any worse? Of course it could. I stood up wearing only a bra on my top half, wrapped the loose romper fabric around my waist and opened the stall door. I had lost all respect for myself, the romper, and the authentic Mexican breakfast I had four hours earlier. I spread my feet apart and carefully hopped to the stall next door. I grabbed more toilet paper and hopped back to my home away from home. Sitting there I had a lot of time to reflect on my entire experience with the Hotel of the Fish and the women’s restroom.
I went out to Paul and he grinned at me. His toes were buried in the sand, his Mexican hat was jauntily perched on his head, and a fresh margarita sat in front of him and another one in front of my empty chair. I took a long drink and looked with deliberation at the man of my dreams. Should I tell him?
Crawling under the door the first time was understandable, but going back to the same bathroom and choosing the same stall in an emergency bathroom situation and ending up hopping around half-naked looking for more toilet paper is an unforgettable story he will roll out at every social gathering we will attend for the rest of our long married life. So, Friends, that is why I am sharing this story with you now. Yes, I am preempting Paul’s version which never matches mine anyway. For further proof of the veracity of my version, I’ll even wear the romper.
The worst part is that I cannot swear a series of events such as these will never happen again, because trouble finds me wherever I am hiding, even it is a lonely bathroom stall in a second world country. All I ask of future events is that they not involve skin to floor contact in a sticky seaside bathroom or a bra-only bunny-hop search for the impossible.
Roberto was my husband, brother and friend today. He is our taxi driver, our consultant with Mexican culture and our confidant in parenting twenty-something children.
We worked out a plan with Roberto. He would be our primary mode of transportation for our week in Zihuantanejo. We would call him for a hasty trip into town to pick up water or for a long ride out to Treconnes to sit on the quiet, uninhabited beach. But, it was in the last 24 hours that we got to know Roberto–and he got to know us.
To become a taxi driver in Mexico, you have to purchase your taxi license. It was about $325,000 dollars—not pesos. Roberto said he worked many jobs in the United States and Mexico and raised four children while saving up enough money to purchase his license. It took him sixteen years. His four children are all boys. They need school uniforms, sports equipment (mainly soccer), and money for the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean college; it means Mexican parents help their children with their futures—whatever that future might be.
Roberto was able to open locked gates, secure reservations, traverse private roads, and advise us on activities in and around Zihuantanejo. He took us to a gold market, tiptoed with us through a 140-year-old cathedral, and laughed at us while we pretended to smoke cigars with him. Paul and I rode along in the back seat of his taxi bumping and nodding. Roberto can do anything. We are believers.
Wednesday morning, Paul wasn’t feeling well. He’d had a cold since Sunday, but it wasn’t getting better. He had the chills, a head ache, running nose, and the beginnings of a cough. I should have paid more attention. It was my failing as a wife.
“l want to go shopping in Ixtapa,” I announced at breakfast.
“Roberto,” Paul said looking over at me, “Lesley wants to go shopping.” They were on the phone together. “Okay, I’ll tell her you’ll be here in 15 minutes.”
I shot out of my chair and made for the three flights of stairs to our room. Two hours of shopping without Paul! Thank goodness for his cold!
I sat in the back seat while Roberto drove the 20 minutes to Ixtapa. We joked and laughed and talked about Paul and his wife. I threatened him that he couldn’t sit in the car and wait for me to finish shopping—he wasn’t my husband, I told him sternly.
We arrived in Ixtapa and I looked around. There was nothing. There were about ten hotels and two blocks of shopping. I was so disappointed.
“Well, I’d least like to look at the beach,” I said.
“Okay,” Roberto said parking the car. “I’ll go with you.”
Wait a minute. I was going to walk on the beach with my taxi driver? I did. We parked our little car, number 623, and walked to the public entrance to the beach. We passed under a concrete entrance way and two men stood up and met us. Roberto held up his taxi license hanging around his neck. They nodded to him and glanced at me. In a rapid Spanish, Roberto stood tall and spoke right back. I understood enough to realize that Roberto had to justify our access to the beach. He was defending me. Like a husband would.
We walked on the beach, my heavy shopping tote bumping my leg with every step in the sand.
“Here, give it to me,” he said sighing and rolling his eyes.
We walked along until I realized that I was putting as much pain on Roberto as I did on Paul. They both hated walking on the beach, going nowhere, doing nothing, and carrying a rainbow-colored bag with giant handles.
“Let’s go shopping,” I said wheeling around. “Let me have the bag.”
“Oh no,” Roberto said grimly. “I will carry the bag.”
Back in the car, the air conditioning was struggling to get started. Sweat dripped from under my head and splashed on my shoulders. Roberto looked over his shoulder at me.
“Why don’t you sit up here? It is colder already.” I jumped out of the back seat and opened the front side door. The air conditioning blew my hair, and I shoved my face into the air vent. Roberto laughed until he started wheezing. It felt odd to ride in the front with Roberto and yet, it felt wrong for me to ride in the back and shout over the sound of the air conditioner.
“Okay, we will meet here at 12:15,” I instructed. “Exactly 12:15. Not earlier, okay?” I looked at him warningly. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. Our deal was that he could work during the time that Paul and I were doing activities as long as we set a pick up time.
It was a glorious two hours. I recklessly spent 2500 pesos. I could not tell you how much that was, but every time I pulled out a 500 pesos bill and laid it on the counter I felt power. Later, after the furor of the day subsided, Paul informed me I spent eighty bucks. It takes so little to make me happy.
At 12:15 I was waiting exactly where Roberto and I agreed to meet. I had the rainbow bag and the five other shopping bags, so I kept alternating them from one side to the other. I kept hearing the sound of a horn beeping, but I ignored it. I was in the right spot. Finally, a girl selling dolphin tours came up to me and said, “Is that guy with you?”
She pointed. It was Roberto. He looked frustrated. I got in the front seat and threw my bags in the back seat. I think I hit Roberto in the head with the rainbow bag.
“We were supposed to meet over there,” I gestured towards the corner.
“Yes, but right here is the same as over there, just on the other side of the street.”
“That doesn’t count. You told me where to be.”
“it is alright,” he said staring out the window, his shoulders hunched.
We drove back to the hotel in silence until Roberto began telling me a long story about the Mexican cartel and how they don’t want people in Mexico doing drugs because they don’t want the shipment to the U.S. delayed. I was interested.
“What happens if you do drugs in Mexico?”
“You get your head cut off.” He made the slicing motion on his neck.
When we got back to the hotel, Lena the concierge, met us at the taxi.
“Mr. Paul is not well,” she told me.
“I’ll wait,” Roberto said.
Down at the pool, Paul was laying on a lounge chair. Every time he coughed his chest caved in and a whistle came out.
“Get up, you are going to the doctor.” Looking at my face, he knew not to argue.
Roberto drove fast, careening over the pot holes as we flew down the narrow streets to town. Paul laid his back against the head rest and continued coughing. His face was white. Roberto dashed in and out of the traffic and pulled in next to a pharmacy.
“Come, let’s get him in.” We helped Paul out of the car.
Within less than 30 minutes, Roberto got Paul into an examining room where the doctor took his blood pressure, weighed him, and listened to his heart and lungs. Roberto translated for us, but there times when he and the doctor talked vehemently to one another.
“He’s going to give you an antibiotic shot,” Roberto said steely-faced. “One each for the next three days. I told the doctor you are very sick.”
We were all quiet on the ride home to the hotel. I made arrangements for Roberto to pick us later for dinner. In the meantime, Paul was to rest.
It was at least 8:00 at night when we saw Roberto again. We wanted a quiet, fast dinner. No formalities, no linen napkins, no bucket to ice the wine. Just dinner so Paul could go back and rest back in the room.
“Paul, Lesley, we are friends, right?” Roberto seemed troubled.
“Of course, Roberto,” I said.
“Do you need something, Roberto?” Paul asked.
He pulled over onto to side of the road next to the beach and let the engine idle.
“It’s my son. The one who is twenty three? He told me yesterday he had something serious to talk to me about,” he stopped and looked at us in the darkness. “Is this okay to talk to you?” I let Paul answer. It seemed like he needed Paul more than me.
“We have serious talks with our kids,” Paul said. “What is happening?”
“He told me he was in love.”
“That’s great,” I said happy for the Roberto Junior out there somewhere.
“To a thirty-year old woman with a child,” he finished.
“Roberto, you love him no matter what, right?” Paul asked.
“That’s what I told him,” Robert said.
“Then that doesn’t make a difference.” Sometimes it’s scary how smart Paul is.
Later, after dinner, we sat on the concrete steps of El Centro where two local teams were playing basketball. I was cheering for the side with the purple uniforms and heckling the referees who were pretty loose when it came to calling traveling. I was happy. My husband was starting to feel better.
“Lesley and Paul.” We looked up at Roberto smiling and standing behind us. “Time to go home. We have a big day tomorrow.
Roberto rested his hand on Paul’s back for a moment as he helped him stand up. He patted him gently between the shoulder blades. It could have been a “you owe me for taking your wife shopping” pat, or “don’t go scaring us like that again,” pat, but I think, watching Roberto match
us step for step to the car, it was a “thank you for being a kind friend” pat.
We spent our last full day with Roberto on a tour of a gold and silver market in Petalan, walking rows of an ancient pyramid and playing field, and eating bowls of local pezole soup. When someone hands you the salt shaker without you asking for it, he is a friend. Best Wishes, Roberto. We will think of you, the boys, your wife, and, of course, taxi 623 that always met us with a rush of kindness. It felt like home.