Vasant 2024 Stories - Patty Somlo

 

As close to paradise

By Patty Somlo

 

My first night in Tulacán, I received a warning. In the coming days, I would be expected to kill a duck. Ducks wandered freely around the Lopezes’ bare dirt yard, oblivious to the danger. Gazing at those innocent-looking birds, I wondered which one’s fate I might be holding in my hands. I didn’t ask – and no one explained – how the killing would occur. Perhaps they assumed I knew. I’d never killed a single living creature, except for an occasional spider lounging in my tub. The building manager hired a guy to set traps for mice that occasionally zipped across the kitchen floor.


I should have considered that the duck killing might be a joke. I searched the Lopezes’ faces, but none of Maria’s four brothers, or her father, cracked a smile. Neither did Maria or her husband, David. If the duck murder was a joke, everyone seemed in on it, except me.


I had never set a toe down in Tulacán, until the previous day, when I waded through the lukewarm Pacific, following a graceless exit from the small motorboat that had ferried us down the Mexican coast. My boyfriend, Greg, on the other hand, had been traveling to Tulacán several times a year, ever since his friend, David, had made it his home. David had gone to Tulacán ten years before, expecting to stay a few weeks. He fell in love with a local girl, Maria, and never left.
As soon as our boat slowed down close to shore, I could see that Tulacán was as close to paradise as a place could get, what I had expected, when Greg and I planned the trip early on. At that time, love – or at least, lust – was wildly in bloom.


But weeks before we boarded the Mexicana Airlines flight for Puerto Vallarta, I began to question if the relationship would last, long enough to use the plane tickets. Greg and I saw less of each other each day. When we did get together, people were always around. The moment we arrived at a party, Greg would scurry away, spending the evening chatting up other women, while I hung around the drinks table, stuffing handfuls of chips into my mouth, between sips of cheap wine. The attraction I’d once felt for Greg also appeared to be gone. Even so, I wasn’t ready to give him up and face being alone.


Each day following the duck-killing warning, one of the Lopezes would remind me of the terrible deed. Señora Lopez had promised to make pozole on our last night. What made her version special were strips of succulent roast duck laid across the top.


It wasn’t just the duck killing. The lack of electricity, paved roads, and cars made life in the hillside coastal village of Tulacán, Mexico seem more magical than real. In addition to the duck killing, I’d been warned to be careful about an angry pig that was kept tied up out front of a house, midway up the hill. Every time I got close, I stopped and waited at the edge of the dirt yard, to make sure the beast was asleep.


I had plenty of time on my own in Tulacán, something I should have expected, given Greg’s recent lack of attention. Instead of taking romantic strolls on the beach or lying next to me on the sand, Greg disappeared each morning, leaving me to fend for myself. I learned from David that Greg stopped by Maria’s grandmother’s house every other day, after Doña Alisa received a delivery of an illegal, thick white and hundred-plus-proof alcohol. Greg bought the brew in large glass jars, indulging before the day barely started.


I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d already noticed that Greg drank too much. Away from work now, the guardrails were easily tossed off. By the time I saw him in the afternoon, his lips were plastered in a wobbly grin. In the Tulacán tradition of giving people nicknames based on a role they played or some physical trait, Greg’s should have been Borracho, the Drunk.


In addition to reminding me that I would soon have to slaughter one of those harmless ducks, Señor and Señora Lopez needled me about marrying Antonio, their oldest son. As was true for many people I met during my stay, Antonio was never referred to by his real name, but by the nickname he’d been given, Chele. The name roughly translated to Blond Boy, and fit. Running through Chele’s straight brown locks were golden strands, lightened by the sun.


More than anything, Chele wanted to live in America. To do so, he needed a green card, difficult to get by a young Mexican guy, whose chief skill was charming tourists to fork out pesos for a horseback ride up the hill, to what Chele described as a secret waterfall, a short, narrow stream that flowed into a small shallow pool.


The Lopez parents seemed to sense that my relationship with Greg was going nowhere, but down. They didn’t assume that Greg and I might one day marry.
When Greg vanished soon after we climbed out of the bed that took up most of our tiny palapa, hanging above the floor from thick chains to keep scorpions out, I walked down the path to the open-air shower, and let the sun-warmed water soothe my neck and back. Hair still damp, I would trek down the hill to a flat, open space, where I could sit and take in the view of the crescent-shaped gleaming white sand beach and clear aquamarine water. Of course, I had to safely skirt that horrible pig as I went. Luckily, his fat gray bulk, browned with dirt, was usually out to the world, his snores assuring me I’d be safe.


Moments after I sat down with my sketchpad and pastels, a local woman would appear, balancing a tray atop her head. Seeing her, I would scold myself not to give in. But as soon as she set the tray down and I inhaled the sweet scent, I couldn’t help but nod and say, “Si.” She barely got away before I devoured that generous slice of warm fresh coconut pie.


Just as I could count on a visit from the pie seller, I knew someone else would stop by. That someone was Chele. After all the hints of my marrying him, Chele had decided that I would be his ticket out of a dull Tulacán life. No matter how much he tried to persuade me that he would make a terrific husband, I worked equally hard, arguing that I wasn’t intending to marry anyone, let alone him. At eighteen, he was too young for me, which I used as one of my repeated arguments. U.S. immigration agents would not believe a marriage between a teenager and a forty-year-old woman was real.


“They will know, Chele,” I told him, one heartbreakingly beautiful morning, the air so clear, the chartreuse palm fronds shimmered. “Because you are so much younger than me, they will suspect that I married you for the sole purpose of getting you a green card.”


Chele’s pretty green eyes stayed planted on my face as he said, “But I will tell them I love you. And I do love you, Caterina.” (My real name was Catherine, but Greg had introduced me in Tulacán as Caterina.)


After professing his love, Chele reached for my hand, lifted it to his lips, and kissed my knuckles.


It did seem a shame to be in such a romantic place when the passion with my boyfriend was gone. The days were one thing, and I mostly managed fine. Greg drank, hanging out, I was told by David, with a group of expatriates, rumored to make money from selling drugs. I worked on my art. Afternoons, I hiked down the trail to the beach, fantasizing that I might abandon my life in San Francisco and settle in Tulacán, spending my days drawing and painting, living a much simpler life. On the way back up the hill, I would drop in to Maria’s grandmother’s house, feet below the dusty yard where the angry pig was tied up.


Doña Alisa was a curandera, a traditional healer, and she worked on my sore left leg and hip, with an excruciatingly painful massage. She assured me the vice-like squeezes would fix the problem. I kept letting her torture me, even while I had my doubts.


Doña Alisa also seemed aware that Greg and I were done. Though she sold Greg the potent liquor that put him in a stupor before the sun went down, Doña Alisa shook her head in disapproval over his drinking.


“It is too much,” she said, the first time I went to see her, after I’d mentioned the pain in my leg from jogging on city sidewalks to Maria, and she claimed her grandmother could help.


“You will not want to stay with him,” Doña Alisa went on, her large dark eyes studying my face, as she wagged her right index finger. “He loves the drink and other things more than you.”


I knew she was right about the drinking. While I’d seen Greg indulge in way more than one or two beers back home, until this trip I hadn’t accepted that he might be an alcoholic.


But what did Doña Alisa mean by “other things?” I couldn’t know. And I didn’t ask.


As the days passed, Chele did his best to wear me down. In response, I tried different approaches. When nothing dissuaded him, I resorted to the final one.


“You know, Chele. If I marry anyone, I’m going to marry Greg.”


At first, he didn’t respond, sitting there, silently looking past me. I sensed he was debating what to say. At last, he said, “Well, I could tell you something.”


Unlike the cheerful way Chele normally looked, he now had a serious expression on his face. Seeing that look, I felt a sudden stab of fear. Did I really want to hear the something Chele could reveal?


In the moments that followed, I thought about the fact that Greg and I hadn’t spent a single night together, in the week we’d been in Tulacán. Our second night there, after an early dinner at the Lopezes’, Greg leaned close and whispered, “Gotta go see a friend. See you back at the palapa.”


He stood up from the table, thanked Señora Lopez for the wonderful meal, and headed a bit unsteadily toward the door.


The room turned quiet. I followed Greg with my eyes, not sure what this was all about, but feeling mildly upset and ashamed.


When I turned back around, everyone at the table was staring, waiting for me to explain. I shrugged, made an effort to smile, and then said, “I don’t know what that’s about.”


Being in the hot sun all day, I grew tired early, falling asleep moments after I returned to the palapa. It hadn’t occurred to me, as I wondered about the something Chele could reveal, that Greg rocking the bed didn’t wake me, because he didn’t return, at least not until after the sun had come up.


As the time grew closer to my leaving Tulacán, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was growing fond of the place, as well as the Lopez family. On the other hand, I was stuck at the end of another failed relationship, eager to get home and make a clean break with Greg, so I could start a new chapter in my life.


Several times a day, I felt a dark dread fall over me, when I thought about the end of the visit. There was that duck-killing, after all. I still didn’t know how I would handle it. I felt certain I couldn’t possibly kill a duck. But did I have the courage to say no? The Lopezes had been so kind. Plus, wasn’t I being a hypocrite? I would have been perfectly happy eating Señora Lopez’s pozole, with juicy strips of duck laid across the top. How dare I be squeamish about killing one?


Greg and I were expected early to the Lopezes’ that last night. Both Señor and Señora Lopez had reminded me that we needed to leave time for my duck slaughter, and Señora Lopez to clean it. Since I had a few hours left in the afternoon, I decided to stop in and see Doña Alisa.


It turned out that Maria had been right. The tough massages had erased the pain, and I could move more easily, for the first time in months. Instead of having me lie down on the hard wooden table, Doña Alisa gestured for me to take a seat, in a rocking chair across from her, facing the only small window in that dark place. She sat down in a matching chair, her tiny frame practically swallowed by it. I thought for a moment how astonishing it was that this frail-looking woman possessed such strong, powerful hands.


I started to feel uneasy under her penetrating gaze. Finally, she broke the silence.


“Caterina,” she said, practically exhaling my name. “We have made your body better. No?”


“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. The pain is gone. I feel great now.”


“But the spirit. That we haven’t changed.”


I sat and slowly rocked, letting her words hang in the air.


“The spirit is still hurting,” she explained.


Then she sighed.


“This Greg,” she began.


When she stopped speaking, I waited quietly for her to go on. The air in the tiny, crowded room seemed heavy, and I noticed my breath, short and ragged as I inhaled. I couldn’t have said what about Doña Alisa’s manner had made me worried she was about to tell me something I didn’t want to hear.


“How long have you known Greg?” she asked, her eyes focused on my face.


“Oh, let’s see. We’ve been together about six months,” I said.


She nodded slowly, then began using her long, lined fingers to count.


“Six months, yes,” she said, and commenced the finger-counting again.


I felt as if I might burst. What was Doña Alisa thinking? Why all this counting of the months, over and over again? I wanted to ask, but at the same time wasn’t eager to hear what she might say.


“You know,” she said, rocking back in her chair, and then leaning forward, as if about to impart a secret. “You know that Greg has children.”


Doña Alisa’s words practically knocked me off my chair.


“Children?”


As I asked the question, I too leaned forward.


Instead of giving Doña Alisa a chance to explain how the man I had been intimately involved with for six months could possibly have children he’d never mentioned, I asked, “How many?”


Doña Alisa repeated that finger-counting again. When she finally finished, she set those wrinkled hands down in her lap, where I now rested my gaze. She sighed and then, in a raspy whisper, said, “He has three.”


She leaned forward a few inches more and added, “And one on the way. Due in about three months.”


All that finger-counting made sense now.


I sat for several minutes, taking in the startling news. I was tempted to ask where those children happened to be, who was the mother, and what Greg was doing with me, and not living with them. But I couldn’t kid myself. At least the first part of the answer – where the mother and children were living -- I realized I already knew.


Hiking down the hill, with the thick strap of my dark blue duffle bag hanging over my shoulder, was far easier than the trek had been going up. Thankfully, the angry pig was nowhere in sight, when I reached his yard. Doña Alisa understood perfectly why I was leaving without saying goodbye, to Maria and David, or Señor and Señora Lopez. She kindly agreed to wait until I was on my way to Puerto Vallarta, before delivering the notes I had written, one to the Lopezes, another to Chele, and the last one to Greg.


I found one of the motorboat owners hanging out at the beach. We quickly negotiated a fair price for the one-hour trip up the coast. He kindly carried my bag, hoisted above his head, to the boat.


The sun sank as we made our way, clouds turning a flaming orange and the ocean pink. For the first time since arriving in Tulacán, I felt I was really seeing the simple stark beauty of the place.


The driver sat up front, not saying a word. I was glad. At least for these moments, I wanted to be right there in that place, not thinking about what had just happened or how my life would turn out, once I returned home. Find a girl to love, I had written to Chele. A girl your own age, who makes you happy. If there’s no one in Tulacán, then try Puerto Vallarta. Love is what matters most.


As the boat got close to Puerto Vallarta, I could see the lovely white stucco houses with their red tile roofs dotting the hillside. What a crazy thing, me giving someone advice on love.


That was almost as absurd as the thought that on this night, instead of arriving in the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta, finding a hotel, checking in, and calling the airline to change my flight, so I wouldn’t be on the same plane with Greg, I would have been wielding a sharp knife, plunging the blade into the throbbing heart of an innocent duck, who had done absolutely nothing to harm me.


And then I realized I was starving. I couldn’t help but hope I might find a restaurant that served pozole, for the last dinner I would enjoy on my Mexican holiday.

 

Patty Somlo’s is from U.S. Her most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing) was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Delmarva Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and over 40 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net multiple times.

 

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