NOTE: This is a short novella I’m writing on my 10-day vacation to Mexico, so if you are reading it for the first time, start with “She Flies” and scroll up from there. Enjoy!
The sun was rising over the water, and Lena sat on the beach watching the workers in the distance starting their day. She went to bed so early that she woke refreshed at five a.m. After a long walk, she decided there was no hurry to go shower and plan her day. Instead, she sat. She let her mind drift, and then closed her eyes to listen to the gentle waves hit the shore. What is it that you want, Magdelena Ortiz, she thought. She tried to envision what that might be. She thought of the house in Irvine, and while she had loved it when they bought it twenty years ago, now it seemed more of part of what had imprisoned her. She didn’t really want to go back there.
She thought about the old life, and most of it felt beige to her…not like the colors of this place she had been exploring for the last seven days. Everything here was rich in color. I want color in my life, she thought. That was a first. I want some kind of little job so I can be of use to people. Maybe a florist or an antique store. She didn’t want to be tied down though, she went on dreaming, her eyes still closed. I want more Mexico, she thought. I live two hours from the border, so why can’t I go once a month and explore? Do I want a man, she asked herself. Not just yet, was the answer.
Opening her eyes, she looked out at the ocean. The colors of blue were many, and she smiled at her luck at landing here.
After breakfast, Rogelio came to chat for a few minutes. He asked her in Spanish what she did yesterday. He listened with great interest as she described the ruins, and she could see a certain pride in his heritage as she described the buildings and the steps she climbed. Then he asked her what she was doing today. She hadn’t really thought about it. In English she said, “What should I do?” She sounded like a child speaking to her friend who was at least twenty-five years younger than she was.
“You have to go to Tulum, my friend.” Rogelio replied.
He went on to draw her a map of how to get to the shuttle that would take her there for less than five dollars. He told her which stop to listen for, and where to go from there. She nodded, paying close attention to every word.
“Okay,” she said, “You have planned my day.” She went back to her room and showered, answered an email from Beatrice, and sent Clinton a text letting him know she was okay.
The walk to Avenida Juarez was longer than she would have guessed, but she followed Rogelio’s instructions to the letter. Avenida Quinta became crowded with American and European stores as she walked. There was an American Outfitter, a McDonalds, a Michael Kors boutique, and even a Forever 21. There were still plenty of Mexican vendors, and she stopped at a couple, buying two pairs of earrings and a bracelet for Beatrice.
When she arrived at Avenida Juarez, everything changed. The stores were mostly for the locals, and there were no tourists anywhere. She walked by several parks, and when she saw the police station in the exact spot Rogelio said it would be, she turned right, and there was the bus station. She asked for the next bus to Tulum, and was directed to an oversized van that was already packed full of passengers. She saw the last seat at the back was still empty, so she made her way there. Once seated, Lena realized that she was the only tourist, and that her Spanish skills were going to have to get her to Tulum. A peace came over her. I can do this, she thought.
What little air conditioning that existed on the shuttle was blowing on the seats in front. She noticed the moisture on her arm glistening, and she knew it was going to be a long ride. The bus stopped to let people on and off. There was a waiter sitting next to her. She could tell because he wore a uniform from a resort in La Playa. Midway to Tulum, two women who appeared to be sisters hopped on the bus with four small children. They referred to one another as “Gordita,” and in truth, they were large women, but she thought how sweetly the word sounded when they spoke to one another. It wasn’t an insult. It was out of affection. Lena loved watching them with their children, how they laughed at the youngest who was just waking from a nap in one of the women’s arms.
An hour into the ride and she heard someone up front point out the turnoff for the Tulum Ruins. At the next stop, Lena went to the front of the bus and asked the driver if there was a downtown area, to which he replied that’s where they were. She handed him forty pesos and got off the bus. The area she stepped into was anything but a downtown. It was definitely on the outskirts, so she found a group of taxis on a corner and asked one of the drivers for a ride. Fifteen minutes later she was at the area outside the Tulum Ruins.
In many ways, it felt to Lena a world apart from Playa del Carmen. Tulum felt like it catered less to American tastes. There was a Starbucks, but other than that, it seemed smaller somehow. She found a small restaurant that touted quesadillas and tacos and beer. She thought to herself how delicious a beer would taste just now, so she sat, ordered, and people watched for at least a half hour. A family sat in the table next to her–two adult daughters and their elderly mother in a wheelchair. The mother was beautiful, with short, snow white curly hair and silver jewelry. Her daughters were laughing as they enjoyed the food, and from time to time their mother would chime in, and the three of them would nod and laugh some more. Lena wished she was sitting at their table as one of them. Would that have been Elsa sitting there in a wheelchair, enjoying a meal with her daughter? What a strange concept, Lena thought.
The walk to the ruins from the entrance was hot and long, but once there, the grounds were lovely and the view of the ocean from the highest point was breathtaking. She walked from building to building, taking her time, stopping for sips of cold water she had bought from the shop at the entrance. She stopped to look at iguanas that roam the ruins, admiring their leathery skin and agile legs as they soaked up the sun from ancient bricks.
By the afternoon she was exhausted from the sun so she caught a taxi back to La Playa. Once back at her hotel, Lena took a dip in the pool, and then curled up on one of the beach chairs with the book about the Dominican sisters. The story had captured her interest as it told the story from each of the sister’s lives. There were four sisters total, but only three of them were political. The only one who didn’t engage in the communist movement survived to tell the story. She compared the character to her own life, being an only child to Elsa and Luis, she often felt that their stories had ended with her, and then she became Ned’s version of what she should be. What was there to know about her own family? From all she knew, she only had one or two surviving aunts and an uncle on her father’s side. Lena thought about finding them in Tecate. The idea appealed to her, though she wondered what they thought of her after so many years without contact. She had one cousin who found her on Facebook and had periodically given her updates on people there.
A young waiter she hadn’t met came to where she sat and asked her what she would like to drink. Lena thought for a moment, “Algo refrescante…” She said, something refreshing…almost to herself. She couldn’t quite think of a drink that wasn’t heavy like beer or that would make her drowsy like anything with tequila.
“How about a special drink from fruit we make for you.” He answered in English.
“Sounds good,” she said, as she smiled at him. He was young and handsome and she read his name on his nametag, “Eric.” She said with a Spanish accent.
“Oh, you say my name very well, Senorita.” Eric said to her, and the complement of the younger version of a pleasantry didn’t go unnoticed.
Eric brought a drink that was some mixture of mango and coconut with rum. She smiled, taking a sip from the straw as he stood by her, awaiting either a tip or a nod of approval. She gave him the nod, and he smiled back.
“And what is your name, if I may ask?” Eric asked.
“Mucho gusto, Lena. A beautiful name.” Eric replied. Lena smiled, realizing that the banter of flirtation was something she hadn’t done in so many years that she felt like a complete fool even trying, and she knew she blushed. Come on, she thought. He can’t be a day over thirty. “What are you doing tonight, Lena? I mean for fun.” Eric was bold, Lena thought.
“I hadn’t made plans just yet.” She replied, taking another sip of the sweet drink to hide her nervousness.
“There’s a place the locals go that isn’t far from here. It’s called Salsanera, if you want to check it out.” Eric leaned in as he said this, placing a napkin under her drink.
“Thanks. I’ll think about that.” She allowed herself to smile up at him, and for a moment she was twenty-one, without a husband or children or a divorce pending at home. She looked away as he turned, but allowed another quick glance at him as he walked away. He’s young, she thought. Not an option, she reminded herself. But then she remembered what it was like when she was younger and bolder, how it felt to hold on to a young man’s body as they moved to music. What a beautiful feeling, she thought, as she returned her attention to the book on her lap in an effort to control her mind from venturing further.
After a quick shower, she took a two-hour nap in her room. The crisp white sheets were cool against her skin, and by the time she woke her room was an icebox from turning the air up so high when she came in. She was starving. It was already seven thirty, so she dressed in a simple black and white dress she brought with her that was cut with a full skirt, short sleeves, and a rounded neckline. She put on red leather flats and after applying moisturizer to her face and a bit of powder, she painted her lips red. Ned would be taken aback by the sheer daring of her look, but in the full-length mirror she liked what she saw. She looked good for 57, she thought, and the tanned arms and chest were becoming. She smiled into the mirror the way she had at sixteen. “Que linda!” she could hear her mother say as clearly as if she were standing right there with her.
She walked down the familiar Avenida Quinta, and then strayed up a couple blocks to an area she hadn’t explored. There was an outside restaurant with white lantern lights strung above all the tables. She sat near the street, listening to the music they played. It was a salsa, but slower than most, and Lena felt happy being here. Over dinner she thought about returning home in two short days. What would it be like to not be on vacation? She dreaded going back to the house.
After dinner she strolled among boutiques and other restaurants, and whether it was by chance or some seed she planted in her mind, right in front of her was Salon Salsanera. She paused, looked beyond the three or four young women waiting to get in to see what it looked like inside, and then before she lost her courage she walked in behind them. The young woman at the front door showed Lena to a table in the back, and up at the front on stage Lena saw the band setting up as the canned Latin music was still playing from earlier in the evening.
There is something about a Latin beat, she thought, ordering a shot of tequila that she would sip as she watched the other dancers when they hit the floor. She was only here to watch, after all, and she knew she was lying to herself. What would she do, Lena wondered, if the waiter from the pool walked in? What would she do if he didn’t? What if someone else asked her to dance? What if nobody did? Her mind was running in circles. Stop, she thought. She took another sip of the tequila.
The band started promptly at nine. Right away several couples got up to dance. They moved beautifully, she thought. As the club started to fill up, she looked around the room for Eric. He wasn’t there that she could see. It’s fine, she thought. I’ll have this drink, watch the other dancers, and go back to the hotel.
Just then, a man who looked to be in his forties walked up to the table, “Te gustaría bailar?” he asked politely. She nodded, let him take her hand, and followed him to the dance floor. The song was a slower salsa, and he recognized that she was nervous, so he motioned to her to watch his feet, which she did. She was surprised at how quickly she picked up the steps. Next, he guided her with his hands, turning her and bringing her back in close. Lena felt exhilarated. She was dancing. How long had it been? She couldn’t remember having danced like this as an adult. Maybe in her teens, but back then it was to disco music.
After her first dance, she sat back at her table and ordered a Coke, but before it came someone else asked her to dance. This time she followed her partner easier, and by the next time that her first partner circled back to ask her to dance again, she had the moves down with only a couple missteps when she was thinking through the moves too much.
When she finally returned to her table and took a long sip from the bottle of Coke, she looked across the room and there he was, standing at a table closest to the dancefloor, the handsome pool waiter named Eric. He looked at her, smiled, and raised his bottle of Corona in her direction. She laughed, looking at him and reading his mind. He had given her the clue, and she had followed it.
Eric weaved his way between tables, walked up to her, took her hand and kissed it before leading her off to the dancefloor. The song that the band played was a cumbia. She watched Eric’s feet, and moved with him. He smiled at how quickly she followed his lead. At the end of the song, she turned to go back to the safety of her table, but his hand pulled her to him for a salsa. She laughed when she lost her step, and so did he, before helping her right back into the dance. She moved her hips to the music, and on several occasions she made eye contact with Eric. He was so young, she thought. He couldn’t be much older than Clinton. But as quickly as that thought crossed her mind, the next song started and Eric lead her toward the door of the club.
“Where are you taking me?” She asked.
“Come with me while I have a smoke.” He replied. Once outside, they walked to a small garden across the street, and he sat first, patting the seat next to him. “Come. Sit.” Eric said. He had a smile that was mischievous, and she sat next to him, her heart beating from the dance as well as the energy of being summoned by this handsome young man.
“Thanks, Eric. That was fun.” Lena’s voice sounded like a den mother at that moment. She didn’t want to be presumptuous, and it was safest to think that he was dancing with he because she was a hotel guest, and older woman on her own. He probably felt sorry for her.
He offered her a cigarette, and to her surprise, she took one. The women in her yoga class would have been so disappointed had they seen this, she thought. He lit her cigarette first, then his own.
“Lena, you came to dance with me.” He said, flashing that smile at her.
She started rambling about having dinner close, stumbling on the place, not being sure if she would come in, and at that, he put his hand around the back of her head, gently pulled her hair before pulling her in and laying a passionate kiss on her lips.
At first she was afraid, but after a few seconds, she kissed him back. His lips felt so taut and full. Not like Ned’s at all. He pulled back and looked at her, and then started kissing her neck. She dropped the cigarette she had only puffed once, and he again kissed her lips. That something stirred in her was a surprise. She imagined what it would be like to be with him. She let her hands touch his back, feel the muscles of his young body.
“We should go back in.” She said.
“Okay, mi amor.” He said, again smiling in that knowing way that said he knew this was new for her, and that it was forbidden in so many ways. He didn’t know if she was married or divorced. But he could read from her body language that he had sparked a fire that had been out for a very long time, and she could tell that he also knew he was completely in charge.
Once inside, she returned to her table. She was rattled and invigorated, but also a little out of her element. When she turned to find where Eric had gone, she didn’t see him. She sat at the table, and took another sip from the Coke before putting her small purse over her shoulder and walking toward the door. She didn’t look back.
Lena knew that what she had experienced was perfect. There was nothing more needed. To have had this moment was enough. It was what she had come for. Anything more would become complicated and would ruin the memory of that moment on the dancefloor, the way he had kissed her, and how for a second, she wanted nothing more than a young man named Eric.
She walked through the streets of La Playa, the music still buzzing in her ears. She felt beautiful. The ocean air was cool on her skin, and she let herself remember what it felt like to be desired just moments before.