Jan 152014

JenSteelePhotography_073Author photo by Jen Steele

Oh, yes! This is a wickedly smart, wise story, artful, too, told from the point of view of a dissatisfied husband with an alcoholic wife, a man who only wants to be free of what he thinks of as his own worst nightmare, a man who abandons his wife, finally, in a Puerto Vallarta bar as she dances drunkenly with a stranger, but a man who, in the end, discovers that his nightmare wife was not the real woman, that he had never paid attention, that, without him, she wasn’t even a drinker. Like James Joyce’s “The Dead,” “To Mexico” focuses on the moment when the husband discovers the essential otherness of his partner, when he breaks through the assumed intimacy of couples to the real, secret woman beyond. In this case, it’s too late; in Joyce’s story we are left to wonder. The artfulness is most obvious in the pattern of bookish juxtaposition: she (the apparent drunk) loves Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano while he prefers the ersatz magical heroism of Carlos Castaneda, two visions of Mexico, two visions of the world, false contraries as it turns out that only feed the narrator’s mis-perceptions of his wife, himself and love.



The first night, Dale was standing by himself out on the balcony, in the early dark. Somehow he relaxed enough to notice the sky. “Relaxed” wasn’t the word, it was more that he was worn down, not just by a day’s airport grind but by the months at home that came before. On the balcony, gently mouth breathing, Dale was tiredly alert and the moon caught his eye. It was the famous curled white sliver, but instead of vertical it lay flat. A tiny coy smile. A tiny smile in a black face the size of eons. The two could hardly be comprehended together. He saw more: one pale star up in a far left corner of sky, and then up in the right corner, another. Two tiny eyes for the tiny smile. He had to pivot his head to see the whole face, which gave off wall-eyed irony the size of the universe. He tried to relax and feel amused by it. He knew a nose would appear if he looked for one.

He heard Anna emerge from the bathroom. When she clunked a glass down, loud on purpose, Dale turned from the comical sky to his worst nightmare, who wasn’t looking at him from in there on the couch.

“Want some?” Anna waggled her empty glass in his direction.

“Sure,” he said. “You should see this sky.”

“It’s completely dark out there.”

“No, it’s not,” he said, regretting it right away, not wanting to show her the impossible face. She wouldn’t get it. That is, she’d get it but wouldn’t let herself enjoy it, the magical distortion, the brain stretch, because it was his idea. It had come to this. At one time she would have joined him and they’d have laughed together, excited by the size of space. She would have found the nose.

Anna brought Dale a glass of tequila and sat in one of the balcony’s wrought iron chairs. She had refilled hers; he’d see how that went. Back when they were planning this trip she’d asked him, straight-faced, “You think I’ll do a Lowry down there?” Though a binge could happen anywhere, her joke haunted him. Tequila was a favorite poison and here it was almost free. Her hangovers were when they usually almost ended it.

The chairs were heavy and ornate and Anna was surprised how comfortable hers was. Normally he didn’t care for heights, and they were perched way up a hill, their balcony hanging cliff-like over Puerto Vallarta’s southern outskirts and the sea. Maybe because it was dark and he couldn’t properly see the danger it couldn’t grab his gut. Or maybe he was too drained to be afraid. Of anything. Chances were—he mused as he touched tequila to his lips—if things got ugly between them tonight, if they started coming apart, he just wouldn’t care.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said to the darkness. It sounded like a peace offering.

“I knew I’d love it,” Dale agreed. He added stupidly, “I really want to see an iguana.”

“Hey. To Mexico. We did it.” She held out her glass and they clinked. She tossed her whole drink back, so he did too.

That night there were no eruptions and no plummets off the cliff. Anna was tired too and there on the balcony they barely managed some mumbling about tomorrow’s plans. She wanted to check out silver shops, he wanted to hire one of those boats to go snorkeling. They both wanted to eat authentic Mexican and she asked him, still friendly, if he was going to challenge himself with hot sauces. They had one more tequila each then yawned and stared dumbly into the dark. When they went in and she was in the bathroom he scanned the TV channels to see if there’d be any point ever watching it, and when he came to bed Anna was asleep, her back to him.

Which was fine, which was as usual. And it would make things easier. They were intending to split up here. Nothing had been discussed or announced, but Dale was almost sure that this was her plan.

He hired a boat for not very much money, making the arrangements at the public dock with a tall and handsome man, Vasiliev. Why the man had a Russian name, Dale never did learn. He announced the deal to Anna somewhat proudly because it included all snorkeling gear, which she’d thought they might have to buy. Now, chugging off toward Los Arcos, a trip that at this speed would take an hour, he wasn’t pleased to be crammed on board with another couple and their two kids. They didn’t look pleased either. His assumption had been that fifty bucks got them their own boat, which seemed to be the assumption shared by the dad, a guy older than him, maybe pushing forty. The boat had one seat too few and the dad was standing. At one point Dale shrugged at him, but he didn’t shrug back. His kids, a boy and a girl, looked about ten, and his wife never stopped rifling through her day pack for treats, lotions, water. The motor roared too loud to talk over. Vasiliev, apparently just the fixer, was back on the dock. Their captain was a Mexican with an eternal smile, caricature of a Mexican mustache and not much English.

But it was a beautiful afternoon. Anna leaned on the boat’s side, face into the breeze, which blew her hair back, a whipping bronze flag. She let her eyes close. She was into her own day pack for the mickey of tequila and discreet sips. Disappointed by the silver prices, which were double what she’d expected and which meant she probably wouldn’t be buying anything, Anna had been quiet most of the day. She was in that mood where something badly startling might emerge.

Dale watched the slow approach of Los Arcos—small islets that arched high from the water. The breeze was a relief. He caught the dad’s eye again, stood and pantomimed him coming and taking Dale’s seat and he waved, smiled this time, shook his head. He was fine, clinging to an iron post, hand to his brow like a pirate.

It was paradise, it truly was. The swelling blue sea, the friendly heat, a quaint old boat that smelled of rust and bait, taking them somewhere they’d never been. Arking frigate birds, diving pelicans. Chased by something larger beneath, schools of small fish thrashed at the surface where they ran out of water. The view landward was of old Puerto Vallarta, its white masonry, palm trees, wild green hills up behind, and then the hills above Conchas Chinas, where their villa was. Dale couldn’t quite see their place, or their balcony, but he knew there were green and yellow parakeets in those trees. Anyway, what could be better? At one point Anna caught the captain’s eye and pointed languidly at something off the bow. The captain slowed, quizzical, then pointed himself and shouted, “Turta! Turta!” Dale finally saw it, a turtle’s head, maybe thirty yards off, a sleek black fist sticking out of the water, then it was gone. Anna had already ceased looking at it. The boy never did see it, apparently, and when the engine roared them back to speed again, he was crying.

A few minutes later, when the little guy had calmed down, and after another pull from her bottle, Anna gestured Dale in close and said, “Next time we’re here, let’s pick door number 3.”

That she was mocking this boat, and his arrangements, was clear. He always despaired when Anna became a willfully hateful person, because it wasn’t her, it really wasn’t. And when he pulled back and looked at her, what also became clear was that she mostly mocked the notion of a “next time.”  She smiled dramatically and falsely, and her eyes, her beautiful deep-sky hateful eyes, dared him to join her and say something back and take things up a notch.

Now the captain was pointing and shouting, “Manta, manta!” They slowed and all of them saw the black fin cut the surface, identical to a shark’s, a big one. And then another fin, ten or twelve feet from the first, the manta ray’s second wing tip. A plankton eater, harmless.

“Are there any sharks here?” he asked the captain.

The captain thrust his finger at the gliding wing tips. “No shark. Manta!”

Dale shrugged and pointed all around them. “Sharks? Any sharks? Ever?”

“No way sharks, no way!” he yelled, smiling non-stop, shaking his head, for far too long a time. Dale didn’t believe him. He could imagine every captain in town agreeing not to see the sharks they saw every day, keep the tourists coming.

The third night, they were in J’s Corruption, a bar they chose for the name alone. Puerto Vallarta had lots of colourful names and they figured it was the gay influence. Some buildings, they’d noted, had rainbow flags painted on an outside white wall. J’s was nearly full but people sipped at their pink or green margaritas as an afterthought, many heads propped on a hand, elbows on the table. It looked like the end of a long hot day. Dale had learned that, like them, most tourists arrived on a Saturday and left on a Saturday and so, city-wide, each new batch went through the same rhythms of recovery and liveliness. Anna, for one, had a formidable hangover from the night before. The cruise back from Los Arcos, her first mickey of the day empty, she’d leapt off the bow at full-speed, shouting in Spanish. But tonight she didn’t show it. Dale was used to this, how she climbed up through her pain to appear pretty much normal. Because there’s no way she wasn’t in pain. She masked it well, though she wasn’t saying much, or meeting his eye. Dale stared at the severe part down the middle of Anna’s head, wondered if that dark freckle had always been there.

He recalled how they’d decided on Mexico three years ago, after a particularly tectonic fight, the one that resulted in them reaffirming never, ever to have a child they were sure to ruin, and then also agreeing never to buy a place together. They’d been lying in bed after making restorative love and she was being wryly humorous, but in the air hung the dire truth that, before long, one of these fiery bouts would end them. At some point she’d said, “Let’s at least get to Mexico.” She’d said it twice.

They both had involvements with it, with Mexico, and neither had ever been. Years ago she’d written her M.A. thesis on Under the Volcano and it was her all-time favorite book. That it was deemed inappropriate to teach her high school English class—not due to content but difficulty—depressed her, perennially, beyond words. And, also years ago, Dale loved Carlos Castaneda, enchanted by the instructive maybe-not-quite-fiction, the magic that just might be true, and he’d read them all. And so they’d often agreed it was a shame that they’d never made it down, to see the world of their favourite books.

Now that they were finally here, Dale wondered if she remembered having said it. Let’s at least get to Mexico. Of course she did. All the travel plans had been made, and the flights taken, the bags checked, the bed turned back and the turtle spotted—all with those words chiming in her ears. It was almost grotesque to think about. He eyed her as she took medicinal sips of her margarita. No. What was grotesque was that he couldn’t ask her. That they wouldn’t talk about these things, their difficulties, was a mark of how far apart they were. Funny, but it used to be the opposite—it was a mark of how close they were that they didn’t have to speak. It had been clear right off the bat—maybe when they started having sex, maybe even at the party where they met, Jonathan’s, that birthday—that they somehow saw each other inside out, right to the embarrassing bones, without having to cloud the view with words. It was a starkest intimacy, and they decided to call it love. Yet it hadn’t taken long—though they never talked about it—for this involuntary nakedness to feel more chilling than warm, and under her biting gaze he lacked enough hands to cover himself up.

J’s huge dance floor was empty. The music tended to retro, 80’s, new wave. It was probably ten-thirty. Anna commented on how dead things were, flicking a finger at the seated crowd, languidly sipping. Dale joked that everybody, like them, was trying to digest several days of tortillas and tequila. When she said nothing, he asked if she wanted to try another place.

“All these heads are knobs,” she said, “waiting to be flowers.”

Because they were at tables and the tables were in rows, in the dim light the heads did look like a pattern of knobs. “Flowers?”

“Why not.” She still didn’t bother looking at him.

“What kind of flowers?”

“Crazy come hump me flowers, I don’t know.”

“Maybe peonies, dripping pheromones,” he said. He wasn’t funny like her but he was trying to go along, add to it, join in. That’s all he was doing. “You know peonies? Those big bulbous lush—”

“I know what peonies are.”

“That have to be opened by ants? They’re like weird foreplay machines.”

“I know the peony.”

“Why,” he asked her, brave, or maybe just really tired, “do you hate me right now? Right this second?”

Anna turned away, shaking her head. She didn’t hate him, the sadness said. Her look was desolate. He knew was that he wouldn’t be getting any straight answers from her. Maybe there were no straight answers to give, but she wasn’t even going to try. The day before at Los Arcos, snorkeling, after they’d anchored and gotten into the mismatched masks and flippers, she’d had him swim with her around to the other side of the first small islet where, making sure they hadn’t been followed, they found a ledge about four feet deep, to stand on. She doffed her bottoms and got him going and got herself going and they managed a fast one, underwater, surrounded by yellow and blue fish and the horrendous squalling of birds roosting on the island ledge twenty feet above  heads. Pelicans, frigates, boobies almost shoulder to shoulder. The smell of bird-shit was so ripe that Dale felt its sour acid in his nose and throat once he got to breathing hard. Her seduction was aggressive, and more of a dare than anything else: since they were in slap-dash Mexico they might as well fuck in public. He truly didn’t like it that those two small kids were a few fins kicks around a corner. And he was still thinking about sharks, and what he’d do if he saw a manta wingtip. But he managed her dare, glad when it was over. She said only, “Okey-dokey,” caught her breath, squeezed his bicep, got her bottoms back on, and swam away from him. Sex was never a problem for them. Unless you saw it as a thing that had kept them together too long.

In J’s Destruction, saying banyo under her breath, Anna stood and walked from their table, snapping her fingers and popping her hips to a Bowie, one of the dancy ones. For two days she’d been surprising Dale with Spanish words, like banyo. She somehow knew the difference, in Spanish, between mackerel and tuna, when she ordered a skewer from a beach vendor. Without resorting to a word of English she had haggled over a T-shirt. She knew how to get the good tequila and the darker beer. She told him that “diablo” wasn’t the real hot sauce. Had she been studying? When he asked her this she regarded him with cool concern, and said, “You don’t pay attention, do you?” It was the kind of accusation he no longer pursued.

She didn’t go to the banyo but made right for the dance floor. It was a bad sign, maybe the worst sign of all, when she danced solo to start off an evening. As if conspiring with her, the instant she set foot on the dance floor some staff person in the dark recesses flicked a switch and the floor lit up in glaring red and blue squares, popping off and on randomly, hideously. If colour was noise, it would have been deafening.

After gulping all the ice-mush of his margarita down so fast he got brain-freeze pain, Dale left the bar. And left Anna.

He’s been back home a year now and it’s been six months since he stopped checking the mailbox compulsively. He has no idea if news would come in a letter in any case. That was just romantic, archaic. If word from her ever comes, it would be her voice on the phone, a simple, “Now what?” Or it might be email, just as flippant, the subject line “Geoffrey Firmin Needs Money.” He hasn’t seen her for a year. She might be dead. Though he doubts that. He knows she might be anything at all.

He sees that he now thinks of her fondly. It helps him with the troubling times, though you’d think it would be the opposite. When he pictures her she’s usually in the pool, there in Mexico, where he watches her swimming from up on their balcony where he stands slightly frightened, two feet back from the railing, not touching it, and leaning forward to peer over it. She wasn’t a fluid swimmer and the punchiness of her stroke was somehow juvenile, and oddly sexy for it. He was perched three storeys above, so if he called her up for a sandwich or if she cajoled him into joining her they had to shout. The time he remembers most was when, poolside, on the lounger reading his Carlos Castaneda book, Anna suddenly dropped it, unfinished and unbook-marked, beside her onto the concrete. Done. It looked like she’d read maybe twenty pages. She dropped it sadly, gently, maybe because she knew she was dropping something dear to him. He witnessed the whole thing. It was the third book in the series. He really should have brought the first one for her, because it did a better job of preparing for the wise insanity that followed. The third book assumed a lot, too much. So maybe it was his fault. In any case she dropped the book and stared off, her sadness continuing, probably deepening, at what she saw to be the naivety of the man she’d married. Then she looked up. He doesn’t know if she already knew he was up there watching. But she looked up, saw him, tapped the dropped book with a finger and shouted, funny and sad both, “Come on.” And then, “Really?”

She knew that he wanted it to be true. She knew that he respected its instructions on how to live, on how to hunt life’s hidden purpose. How to see. When Anna dropped the book, there was nothing of her feeling superior. Nor was she sad for him. She was sad for them, this much was clear. She hopped up from her lounger then and, without another word, dived in. Whenever she wanted to feel better, Anna jumped into water, went for a fresh walk, or uncapped a bottle.

They did try. She’d also brought Under the Volcano, for him. He’d been sitting up there on the balcony with it resting on his lap. Heavy as hell and intimidating. Likely because he was trying to read it only for her, he found it impenetrable. And in the end, despite the colourful self-torture of Firmin drinking himself to death, surrounded by spiky Mexican exotica, it was boring. Let’s call a spade a spade. In any case, the two books only proved how wrong they had been that the two Mexicos they’d imagined might be remotely the same country.

“Why do you hate me right now? Right this second?” was the last thing he’d asked Anna, there in that bar, in J’s Corruption. He’d stood for a while watching her dance, by herself, for two songs. Her unabashed style wasn’t unlike her swimming. Using her body to get a job done. At the start of the third song, a well-built guy, white shirt so tight that Dale suspected he was Mexican, joined her. No conversation, but their chests stayed pointed at each other through the dance, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” which made Dale snicker through his nose as he hurried out. He had no evidence that she’d ever cheated on him, and he didn’t want evidence now. On his way out he stopped in the banyo. As he peed, something smelled wonderful–he looked up to see real vanilla beans—that is, the long black pods–maybe a dozen of them, dangling from the ceiling, just out of jumping reach. He remembers that, even at the time, angry as he was, right away he realized that the women’s banyo would have them too, and so he’d wondered, when Anna did visit the banyo, what would she think of them? She’d instantly see the contradiction between their look and their smell. She would call them God’s little shits, or something like that. Something wittier and better. Satan’s dreams.

He doesn’t know if she came back to their villa that night, after J’s, because he didn’t go back himself. Technically, he left her more than she left him. Two days later, when he did return to their villa, he timed things for when the maid would be going through it so if Anna was around she’d be down at the pool. Dale didn’t go to the balcony to check this because he didn’t want to know. Nor could he tell if the bed had been slept in because it was already made. There was no scatter of empty bottles, but they might have been cleaned up. He noticed a new birdcage, of ornate bamboo wicker. The fruit bowl was full of green papayas and the small, wrinkled, yellow mangos she loved. He nodded to the shyly smiling but perplexed maid, stuffed his clothes into his suitcase and taxied to his new room on the modern, less colourful side of town.

The next afternoon Dale saw Anna for the last time. He encountered her by accident, on the Malecon boardwalk. It had been their favourite haunt so he shouldn’t have been walking there in the first place. He don’t know what he was up to, maybe he wanted to see her. Maybe he wanted to grab her back and protect her from everything, especially herself. Maybe she wanted him to, and maybe he knew that. He’d even got badly drunk, in a bar by himself, the night before, telling himself he was doing it in sympathy, in communal spirit, sharing that magical expansion, that wise loving embrace that alcohol can sometimes perform. It was in the seediest corner of the seediest bar he could find, no English to be heard anywhere, and on a windowsill he saw a dirty brown lizard that made him laugh and swear and point, and some macho caballero shouted something at him, and Dale may actually have been in danger, even as he turned to him and smiled dumbly and shrugged. All that kept him from going off in search of Anna that night was his staggering state—he felt certain he was embracing her in any case with his own Lowry-drunkenness, and he felt certain she’d wait for him every night at J’s Corruption, because that’s what forlorn lovers did.

But when he saw her that next afternoon on the Malecon, she wasn’t drunk. Dale followed at a distance. He noted bracelets and bangles, silver, stacked halfway up both wrists. She was carrying a bouquet of dyed feathers in the most garish colours. She wore a new peasant blouse, that unbleached cotton. She appeared pretty much carefree. She wasn’t looking for anyone, for anyone at all, that was clear enough. Every twenty seconds or so Dale mumbled “No, gracias,” to the latest vendor shaking a trinket or T-shirt in his face, and he watched her strategy for handling the same. She had the pockets of her shorts pulled out, and to turn down a vendor she shook her bangled silver wrists at them and then pointed to her empty pockets, smiling. She had a phrase or two to share with them and, to a man, they laughed back and left her alone.

Leaving the Malecon, after several blocks she entered a cafe called The Blue Shrimp. The way she turned into it, without looking, told him she’d been there before. He waited outside long enough to hear her say something in Spanish, hear something said back, a clutch of women it sounded like, and then Anna laughed as loud as Dale had heard her laugh in years.

He realized what was different about her. She had the look of someone who hadn’t had a drink in three days. The exact amount of time since she’d last laid eyes on him. She looked uncomplicated, and fresh. She looked free of both of them.

No, she’s not dead, though they do say it’s either all or nothing for people like her. It’s not a case of being smart or stupid. Lowry was a genius, as Anna never ceased pointing out. It all might just be luck. Or who your companions are.

But what’s she doing? He doesn’t know what she’s thinking right now, doesn’t have a clue. He suspects that their famous fatal intimacy was bullshit all along. How could he not have a clue? He opened new bank accounts but kept their old joint account with enough in it to keep her going a while, though the two times he peeked it hadn’t been touched, and he’s since forced himself to stop looking. He’s checked and knows she would have had to come north to get her visa renewed by now. So likely she’s been in town. She might still be. Her work never did call, nor had any of her friends–so they all must know, and they must have been given instructions. He takes nothing from it; it could mean love or it could mean hate, and isn’t that funny? Mostly what it means is confusion, because that was their epitaph. In any case he bets he’s not far off when he pictures her wearing something colourful—turquoise, white, yellow—and giving lessons of some sort, maybe working in that café where he heard her laugh. Keeping up a simple, clean, one-room place. Keeping birds. He sees her as someone he’d like to meet, and take walks with. Have adventures.

Dale was back home over two months before he noticed the Speak Spanish! book. He was in the process of packing everything up to move to a smaller apartment, because a single man does not need two bathrooms, and he found one with a decent view from the balcony, a silver-blue glimpse of Burrard Inlet up through to Indian Arm which, irony of ironies, was where Lowry lived when he wrote Volcano. (Delighted, speechless as a little girl, Anna had taken him along to explore Lowry Walk there, a surprisingly serene path through beachfront forest.)

Dale found the bright red Speak Spanish! book in the small bathroom, as they used to call it. The book was sitting plain as day on the back of the toilet where she’d left it, ready for her to pick up and commit one or two more words to memory. As soon as he saw it he realized he’d seen it quite a bit, lying around the place. He thinks he’d seen Anna lying on the couch reading it, saying words aloud, trying her accent, excited for their vacation and boning up for it–but to tell the truth, she was right, he hadn’t been paying attention. None at all.

Only since finding the book had he begun seeing the size of their mistake.

Now every few days he opens her closet to check her clothes, feeling the fabric, trying to remember her wearing this blouse, or those jeans. Sometimes he can. But these clothes of hers, which was what she chose not to bring to Mexico, feel like cast-offs, and part of what she’d happily left behind.

—Bill Gaston

“To Mexico” will appear in Bill Gaston’s next collection, Juliet Was A Surprise, due out in this spring with Penguin/Hamish Hamilton. His latest novel, The World, won the Ethel Wilson Prize, and his previous collection, Gargoyles, was nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in fiction. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

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