An original short story set in Mexico
How did Robert Mulligan find himself, in August, in a Mexican jungle, running a small flat-bottomed boat up a sleepy little river into the steamy interior, pointing out tiny alligators to the wives of two retired telephone executives from Detroit, Michigan?
Three years ago when he left his tenured position teaching literature at a small college in the Midwest, divorced his wife of twenty-five years, and took very early retirement, he could never have imagined this. Robert Mulligan felt vaguely like the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon, the defrocked Episcopalian priest played by Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana, driving his tour bus load of church ladies (along with the nymphet daughter of one of them) along the then undiscovered southern Pacific coast of Mexico, later breaking down near Mismaloyla, above the thatched inn of his former lover, played in the film by Ava Gardner.
Here, though, on the river called La Tovara, there was no Ava Gardner, and no nymphet daughter either. Only two quickly aging tourist ladies, sans husbands (themselves off on their own for two weeks of deep sea drinking and fishing), two ladies anxious to arrive at the modest restaurant farther up river where they could experience jungle dining at its finest and splash in the little pool, alligators be damned. They were, of course, disappointed that Robert, a gringo, was filling in for the real Mexican – his partner and buddy Rodolfo Santiago – who had collapsed for the day due to the excesses of Sunday night in the plaza, and to whom Robert owed more than a single favor. It was Rodolfo, after all, who took him in three years ago when he wandered into San Blas alone, confused, sad, wondering what to do with his life. It was Rodolfo who introduced him to significant members of the Mexican community, and at least to a few eligible and lovely Mexican ladies.
Clad in immaculate khaki shorts and blouse, with equally immaculate pith helmet, Sarah was the taller, the older, still trim, almost thin, late fifties. With a tennis tan, with the easy sophistication that significant wealth always carries with it, she was, on the surface at least, the more worldly-wise of the two. She talked without ceasing, apparently to no one in particular, about her adventures of at least three decades in Mexico.
Helen was her quiet partner, her red hair falling in curls. She gazed meditatively at the water, her short red shorts and flowered red shirt contrasting dramatically with her very white skin, almost as white as las garzas, the snowy egrets, nesting in the mangroves. On this slow-moving river perhaps she was hoping for the tiniest sign of a cocodrilo sufficiently large to be potentially dangerous.
Sarah was toward the end of her telling of a rather long, lurid, and sad story about a young man working with Mexican teenagers at a very isolated orphanage in Sinaloa; but receiving no response whatsoever, not even a glance from Robert or Helen, in her frustration she almost shouted.
“Helen, are you listening?” Sarah spoke as if she were demanding the attention of a sorority pledge so that she could give her instructions on how at long last to lose her virginity.
“Helen, you need to listen to me so that you can let Mexico get inside of you. You need to let go of all of those old ways of looking at yourself and let Mexico get inside of you.”
Helen kept her eyes on the water, today refusing to fall easily under the crippling spell of those grey eyes of Sarah. In fact she had been moved by Mexico; but it was a different Mexico from Sarah’s Mexico. It was this Mexico Helen wanted to embrace and at the same time keep entirely closed off to others.
The previous week, only a couple of weeks before Easter, she had, with Sarah, stood on Isla del Rey, the little island just off San Blas. There she had watched the Huichol people, hundreds of them: the men in their woven sandals and embroidered white pants and shirts; the women in their colorful skirts and blouses and bright scarves pulled low and tight over their foreheads – their daily dress. On this occasion, the men wore magical hats with circles of feathers, or colorful, woven balls. From a respectful distance, Helen witnessed them performing their marriage rituals, observed them at their feasts, and later she watched them fill their little boats with arrows and food, and consecrate them to Aramara, the goddess of the sea, so that their good hunting, good crops, and good lives might continue another year. While Sarah entertained the other tourists in the little party, Helen escaped for a few minutes to follow the little Huichol pilgrimage trail past El Faro, the lighthouse on the small hill named Cerro Vigia; there she felt a longing, so strange to her, to offer up something inside of herself to that same Aramara, Goddess of the Sea. She was so quiet returning to their little hotel that evening that Sarah thought she must be catching a dose of Montezuma’s revenge and tried to force her to consume some Immodium just to be safe.
Robert glanced at those pale legs… white, even puffy… too much television, he thought. Clearly, even after a week in Mexico, Helen had little exposure to light, those legs probably hidden inside of long pants and billowy Mexican blouses.
Like most guides, including his friend Rodolfo Santiago, Robert fantasized about his customers. He knew Rodolfo fantasized because Roldolfo loved to brag about his conquests and near conquests of the gringas who had hired him. Of the two women, Robert felt that with a few drinks, the older one, Sarah, might be quite available should he be able to muster up the interest. Over the years he had found women who talked on and on to be easy conquests. One simply had to listen to them, and with only a tiny bit of attention, they began to fall in love. Understanding that single concept can turn any man into a Casanova, he mused. Her companion Helen, though, had too much the quality of bread dough made with white flour to appeal to Robert. Robert thought she showed no excitement whatsoever about this boat trip up La Tovara with her travel companion, and she certainly showed no interest whatsoever in him. Frankly, he thought himself a rather dashing, rugged-looking, pleasantly intellectual guide steering them along La Tovara.
On the other hand, maybe he was of no interest to them at all because they found him boring. That was a possibility he did not like to consider but one that existed ever since his two years in the Peace Corps when assigned to a little village near Asunción in Paraguay. One weekend, after months of abstinence, he and his equally horny Peace Corps buddy caught a bus into the city to get some authentic Latina action. The first taxista they asked told them he knew just the place for them.
They stayed in the cab while the driver knocked on the door of a drab, one-room concrete building. He then waved them to come in where two smiling teenage girls greeted them. The driver said he would return in thirty minutes or so to pick them up. Two infants of perhaps a year or two wandered aimlessly around the little, badly painted room cluttered with laundry and toys. A tiny television set turned up too high rested on a fruit-crate stand between two twin beds. Over the television hung a plaster Guadalupe. He and his buddy each handed over the Paraguayan equivalent of $20, and with no other formalities one girl grabbed him and one grabbed his buddy, pulling both to their beds. They peeled off their thin, one-piece summer dresses revealing their chubby bodies that, because they were young, were nevertheless appealing.
Robert still remembered the feeling he had that afternoon in Asunción up to the precise moment of the girl offering herself naked to him on the bed: “Wow,” he thought, “they are really going to enjoy these big, horny American studs.” Instead, his young señorita lay on her back, spread her legs, raised her knees for easy access… and then, without even a glance at Robert, turned her head and continued to watch the telenovela, the soap opera.
Robert looked down at her profile. She was totally absorbed by the show and, he noticed, she had never stopped chewing her gum. His buddy was having the identical experience. The two infants ran around naked, oblivious to their mothers and the two strangers on the beds. Robert had never felt so unwanted sexually as he had that afternoon. To let loose, he finally had to close his eyes to fantasize about a high-school sweetheart. When he opened them, he looked down at the disinterested young puta and then at the worn and stained sheets for the first time. He knew he had to escape. He and his buddy waited outside fifteen minutes but the taxista was, indeed, on time, faithful to this word.
Everything that happened sexually in his life thereafter was a high pleasure by comparison.
Robert did wonder, though, whether Sarah and Helen had any thought about him at all. What was Sarah thinking about? Something about him perhaps because she demonstrated to him every time he looked toward her that her body was svelte and limber. What was Helen thinking about at this very moment? And why even was it important to him whether she was thinking anything at all. What was going on between those two white pillows that were her thighs, and why did it matter to him?
Helen had rapidly tired of Sarah’s tales, and also of the titillating comments she regularly made to Helen regarding finding a couple of young Mexican males to entertain them for a few days. Sarah had long suspected, probably accurately, that those little hunting trips their two husbands took in northern Michigan provided a lot more in the way of entertainment than the wives were ever told. It was common knowledge that young, dusky-skinned whores in Detroit migrated north with the hunters each autumn, in search of their own prey. She had, of course, shared these suspicions with Helen, partly to justify contemplating such activities for themselves on this south-of-the-border adventure.
But at this moment, Helen, in fact, was realizing that indeed it was not the Mexico of Sarah that she wanted inside of her, and certainly not another man. In fact, she far preferred to cuddle with a good book than to cuddle with any man, including her husband. And who was this stranger, another American, guiding them up this jungle river? What was he thinking? How strange that both she and Robert were hearing but not listening to Sarah talking… how strange, she thought, that three really totally unrelated lives shared this one little boat. She was with Sarah only because their husbands had been buddies for years. Robert was here through who knows what chain of events. And each of them was headed, through this tunnel of mangrove, up La Tovara, as though each were on a separate journey toward what would be for each of them, in fact, a separate destination.
Robert wanted to say something to break the moment of silence that had descended over the little boat: “You can hardly tell those thick roots hanging suspended in the water from the pythons that live along the river, so be careful what you touch.” He said this to amuse them, to be clever, to start earning his share of the $40 they had paid for three hours on La Tovara, and perhaps to pick up a decent tip.
“I would love to see a python,” Helen said, breaking her own long silence; and Sarah, arching her back, licking her lips seductively for the benefit of both Robert and Helen, said she was almost desperate to see one… something to add to her adventures-in-Mexico stories. The bright, snowy garzas watched them from the banks, turtles slid from their moist rocks, and the muscular roots of the mangroves lurked beneath the surface.
At Tovara Springs they relaxed at the little restaurant overlooking the clear pool in the river, and after a light lunch they peeled off their clothing down to their swimsuits and paddled in the cool water. In her emerald-green bikini, Sarah pretended to be ecstatic, twisting and turning her finely tuned tennis body so that Robert could observe how young she really was, or at least how young she wanted to be. Helen, more timidly, slipped off her red shorts and shirt, and soon she was down to a one-piece, also green, covered with jungle flowers, and not particularly flattering. Then she as well waded and paddled, almost like a child, toward the center of the pool. Robert stood in the shallows flexing his legs and his body, pretending to stretch, performing for the two ladies the ancient ritual of males, males of all ages.
Helen showed some signs of sun on her legs and arms and face, but she was looked happy for the first time on the trip. Robert was staring at her white skin.
“You have Irish skin,” he shouted over to her.
“Thank you,” Helen said. Actually, my maiden name is Kelly.”
“We might be related,” said Robert. “My last name is Mulligan, although I never particularly liked that last name – it sounds too much like some sort of Irish fish.”
Not to be left out, Sarah intruded with “And my maiden name is Chardan… French in origin.” Robert sensed she wanted to distract him from Helen now, wanted him to be her audience alone.
“I must say you look beautiful, Sarah, splashing around in that green bikini. I hope you don’t wake up any pythons along the bank. They’d find you irresistible, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”
“Oooooo… that sounds so wonderful! I love the thought of those pythons secretly watching, sliding down the bank and gliding under the water toward me.” Robert understood the nature of tips, and how gentle flirtation can produce good results. Rodolfo had explained this to him more than once, and frequently offered live demonstrations of his abilities to flirt with vacationing gringas. Rodolfo often teased Robert with a few words he had mastered in English: “American women are hot, but American men are not; and Mexican men are hot, but Mexican women are not.”
The trip back was more sociable. Now both Helen and Sarah were eager, for whatever reason, to talk with him. Helen seemed to want to assert herself, to compete with Sarah, largely by asking questions about the wildlife and about the Huichols. Sarah seemed eager to remain in control of Helen by interrupting her to flatter Robert regarding his knowledge of the jungle and the Indians. Robert sensed that his past, though, had absolutely no interest to her. He reflected that so often expatriates and even short-term travelers in Mexico were trying to reinvent themselves, finally independent of their conventional lives back home, their earlier lives, those lives that now seemed long ago and meaningless to them. They no longer wanted to be connected with the past, no longer wanted to introduce it as a subject of conversation.
As he watched the ladies, he thought to himself that just in the course of one afternoon, we can become many people, each vying for the attention of others, but also for the attention of ourselves, for the attention of some sort of generally unrecognized master personality inside of us.
At the landing, Sarah invited Robert to join them for dinner at the Hotel Garza Canela at the south end of the town, where she and Helen had taken adjoining rooms.
“Let’s eat and then take a sunset stroll down that beach…what’s it called, Playa el Borrego?” Sarah suggested.
Robert, still the good guide, cautioned her, “Around sunset the jejenes, the no-see-ums, rise up out of the mangrove marshes to attack the tourists on the beaches. You need long-sleeved shirts and good pants, socks up over your pants, a good hat, and lots of insect repellent.”
In fact Robert hated evening walks along the shore because of the no-see-ums. On some evenings during his solitary walks, they penetrated so mercilessly into his Anglo hide that he found himself reminded of those invisible bites that came out of nowhere during twenty years of professoring.
But over a fine dinner of huachinango… red snapper… and arroz mexicana, as if to destroy Robert’s theory, Sarah did talk more about her life, mostly life as a lonely child, catered to by wealthy parents on the northern New England Coast. Robert, after three Tecates, found enjoyment listening to her and also looking at her in her fresh, white Capri pants, ocean-blue blouse, and four or five bracelets of Mexican silver making delicate music on each wrist. Helen, becoming more and more red after the three hours of intense mid-morning sun on the water, was obviously beginning to feel some discomfort. Toward the end of the dinner, she excused herself to go soak in suntan lotions and to lie down and read.
Robert suggested to Sarah, instead of a sunset walk, that they go dancing at Mike’s Place, and so a few blocks later they found themselves moving to ’60s style rock, some of it played by the owner himself. Sarah moved her body well, and soon Robert found himself in rhythm with her, enjoying the night.
Late into the evening, he suggested that maybe they should go check on Helen.
“Helen’s fine,” Sarah said. “She’s just helping us out. She likes to loaf and read anyway. She never watches television. She always travels with a half- dozen books. She’s sort of a social bore actually, isn’t she? But if you want to go check on her, we can.”
On the leisurely walk back, Sarah stared at two young Mexicans wrapped around each other against a carved wooden door in the shadow of a large ficus tree.
“It’s not nice to stare,” Robert teased her.
Suddenly she put her hands on Robert’s shoulders, turned him toward her, stared into his eyes, and gently pushed him against the ancient stone wall. She pressed herself against him and gave him a long and satisfying kiss. A new fragrance had descended over the night.
“I love Mexico,” she said.
He moved again toward her open mouth. He was sure she had never made herself this available on the streets of Detroit, at midnight no less, and with almost a total stranger. He held her close as if holding a part of himself close. Neither said a word.
Why is it that two people, with no more than the encouragement of situation and with nothing more in common than a kite and a balloon, will succumb to the spell of the moment? And why, Robert thought, was he already reinventing himself to accommodate his new invention of Sarah. He saw her now as a lonely woman, a woman with her own integrity, a woman with longing; and he also saw Helen more clearly now – not the foolish woman addicted to soap operas he had first imagined her to be, but a woman with her own integrity. And tonight, he realized, at least for the moment, he felt his own integrity. Three people trying to work their way through the jungle of the world as best they could.
When they again plunged into a pleasant darkness, they stopped, turned like dancing partners, and each offered happy lips to the other. This time their hands moved, independent of their thoughts, toward the mysteries of each other’s body. As Robert pulled Sarah closer to him, he realized he was actually looking up at the stars. He could not remember the last time he had enjoyed seeing them so much. He could feel that silly old Chris Isakk song rising up inside of him, the one that fed the fantasy of Mexico to Americans for at least a generation:
“South of the border, down Mexico way
That’s where I fell in love, where stars came out to play.”
He felt other energies rising up in him as well. Like the pythons in the undergrowth that surrounded San Blas, those energies always seemed to lurk, often unacknowledged, in the darkness that exists between every man and woman. Why, Robert wondered, did people call it “screwing,” as if two bodies were rotating clockwise around each other? Why not call it “surviving,” or “discovering,” or something at least with a pretense of meaning? Imagine saying to your partner just after the sexual act, “Wow, thank you for helping me survive,” or “Hey, I really love discoveringwith you.” Or to a close buddy, “Boy was she a good discover.” At this very moment, though, he felt as if he was surviving, staying alive, discovering Sarah.
As they continued walking, now in silence, Robert thought that, in spite of his experience in Paraguay, when bodies came together, the possibility of beauty existed, like the night-blooming jasmine, poised to release its fragrance.
Robert knew that for him, whenever he neared orgasm and gazed down on a woman near orgasm, she always at that moment looked to him like the most beautiful woman in the universe, no matter who she was. What was he reinventing at that moment? And why did he sense that the women knew he was looking at them that way? Some had even told him they felt it.
The shadows of the solitary street light filtered through the trees, leaving magical patterns upon Sarah’s face. He found her undeniably beautiful at this moment. Achingly lovely, this woman in her late fifties. This woman he was discovering.
Beauty was always there all right, hiding in the human sexual mechanisms, even in situations unlike this one, even in situations that might seem a bit grotesque on the surface. He remembered some years earlier he had been talked into attending a day-long “Promise Keepers” convention in Denver. By mid-afternoon he was bored and took a break to stroll alone around the luxury hotel and to peek in at some of the other events.
He discovered down the hall a large ballroom and a gathering of tattoo aficionados. Women were being featured at the moment. A Mexican woman walked on stage, turned away from the audience, lifted up her shirt and revealed in subtle reds and blues and greens a gorgeous Guadalupe etched over her entire back. Then a young beauty queen moved with that peculiar strut of a professional model into center view. But unlike professional models who shun tattoos, ivy ran up her body, beginning with its roots tucked deeply in whatever was hidden in her bikini bottom. It wound sensuously over her taut belly, then up under her bikini top and over one breast, finally curving upward along one side of her graceful neck, where a delicate leaf began to unfold just under her left ear. Robert was impressed.
But then, to everybody’s amazement, next on the program… a fat woman, with absolutely no sexual appeal, lumbered onto stage, wearing large black shorts. Nothing would have looked stylish on her.
But nothing at all covered her significant breasts, and these she held squeezed tightly together with her upper arms. He heard a mocking whistle. A few people chuckled softly. Some groaned. She walked to the edge of the stage, bent over toward the audience, and even from a distance Robert could see a masterfully tattooed green stem running the length of the crevice between her breasts. At the top of the stem, near the top of her breasts, was a perfect rosebud.
The audience was mesmerized as she slowly and deliberately – and confidently – relaxed her arms, releasing the pressure pressing her huge breasts together. As she did so, before their very eyes the rosebud began to blossom. Her breasts now completely free, the audience witnessed a tattooed rose, looking real enough to pick, in full maturity! To roaring applause she bowed in clumsy grace. Tears of joy flowed down her cheeks. She had revealed something beautiful about herself and about her body.
And now they had stopped again, under still another ficus tree… blessed are the ficus, thought Robert. And now he was kissing a woman almost sixty years old, who was turning beautiful before his very eyes. She squeezed him tightly, and tears gathered on her face. He hoped her friend Helen was, in her own way, doing as well with her books back in the hotel. At that moment he hoped everyone in the world was doing as well.
The light still showed under Helen’s door when they returned to the Hotel Garza Canela. When Sarah knocked softly, Helen, book in hand, in slippers and satin red slip, opened the door. Looking at their faces, she took one of Robert’s hands and one of Sarah’s hands and pulled them into her room. Sarah, she saw, was radiant. Helen herself looked radiant, perhaps the consequence of the river sun, but also of diving deeply into the pool of herself for several hours. Robert, unable to think anymore about reinventing himself or reinventing his idea of these two women, stood there with them, as happy as he had been in a long time, and yes, he, also, was radiant.