May 092017
 

John Bullock

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To kill time, Mia is studying the Hollywood Legends portrait gallery in the hotel lobby. A small furry spider is moving across George Clooney’s tuxedoed shoulder and then up and across his beaming face. When it gets to the exposed tip of his upper incisor, the spider stops, as if baffled by where it has landed, or unsure where to go from there.

Finn promised to be back by six. That would give them plenty of time to get to the cliffs to see the divers. Finn is a gifted promise breaker, and Mia hopes he’ll have no choice but to stand her up again—another crisis at the restaurant. She would prefer to see the divers alone. They are the main reason she came with him on the trip. Besides, if she goes without him, he can always catch up with her later, which he won’t.

After waiting ten more minutes she decides he is definitely not coming, and so takes a taxi from the hotel forecourt. The thrill of escape trails her like a vapor as the car winds down from Punta Diamante, past the clubs and hotels along the coast, the flashes of sand and water between the buildings. She is glad she won’t see the city when it’s packed with spring breakers, trashing the beauty. When she was in college, the most fun she remembered having at spring break was working at a camp for kids with cancer. They would go on daytrips to Rehoboth Beach, where the main event was crab. From what everyone kept telling her about it, she expected the taste to be so extraordinary that her life would change forever. But after she’d cracked the shell and fiddled with the bits and pulled out some of the meat, it just tasted sour and fishy. And her fingers were covered. Why hadn’t anyone told her that it was just a lot of gunk for nothing?

Lovers are clutched against the safety rail separating the road from the bay below. The driver points to the brightly lit cliff that veers in and out of view as they follow the snaking road. “Clavadistas,” he says, making a diving motion with his hand. Mia can’t believe she’s here. She remembers how she and Vance played hookey in his dad’s den all those years ago and watched Fun in Acapulco, with Vance saying there was no way Elvis had made the dive from the top of the cliff, that it was totally a stunt. If Vance were alive he would have loved to see the real divers. Mia is here for him.

They reach the top, where the El Mirador hotel sits curved into the cliff, its restaurant terrace facing the inlet where the divers land. Tourists and locals mosey through the square before descending the steps to the concrete pier that juts out over the inlet, thirty feet above the narrow strip of water facing the divers’ cliff. Mia’s a bit queasy: the expectant air and ritual drama, the tide bashing at the rock. She thinks of Vance getting sucked out of his canoe at Sullivan’s Weir, a month before graduation, of his dad jogging back along the riverbank, kind of whimpering for help. When Mia and the others reached Vance, he was snagged in a culvert, by a fallen tree, floating in foam from the nearby factories. The next time she saw him was at the funeral home. He looked flawless, better than if he were going to the prom. He would never dress up for that. Mia tries to believe it wouldn’t have mattered, that they wouldn’t have argued about it, though she knows they probably would have. He was so stubborn. But it was different back then. Arguing was easy. Rather than stewing in silence in bed together, you could just put on your shoes and go home.

She looks up at the hotel’s terraces, and for a moment her eyes fall into soft-focus, taking in the blurred dazzle of the night, the murmur around her, the warm bay breeze on her face. She hears hiccups. At her waist is a Mexican boy. His mother and sister are laughing at the faces he’s making to try to conquer his hiccups. The more they laugh the less he can concentrate, and the stronger his hiccups get. He’s mad. When he sees Mia smiling, it’s the final straw. He sulks off to the other side of the pier, takes a full breath, and then bends himself double as if to trap whatever air is inside him. When he stands normally and exhales, he looks hopeful. But his hiccups soon start again.

People crowd the pier. The first dive is scheduled for 7:30. Mia watches the tide surge at the cliff. She’s never felt so raw, so mortal. The night is vast and open, full of dark reaches. How small you can feel here, with so much beyond. There is time and she is idle and it feels wrong. Her hands in the open night. What to do with them? Her dress has no pockets. She takes off her cardigan and is wrapping it around her hands when she feels a brush at her shoulder.

“You are cold?” the man says. He’s older, lean, with an accent. He has a camera with a big lens and is holding it high.

“No,” says Mia. Then she says, “Beautiful.”

“I saw them lighting their torches at the top,” the man says. “The show is about to begin.”

“I can’t wait,” says Mia. And she can’t. Well, she probably could, but she’s here now, and her past is about to appear tonight and make a brave leap into the present. She sees the man looking at her bulge. “I’m replete with the future,” she says, touching her belly, not thinking about being heard.

“Ah,” says the man.

“Mine drift,” says Mia. “My eyes. If you let them slide they’ll pick up on things you normally don’t see. It’s like what things are when you let them be.”

“A philosopher,” says the man, looking expectantly toward the steps. “I’m afraid philosophy is an orphan here.”

Earlier, reading a magazine in the hotel’s breakfast area, Mia overheard a woman say, “Mexicanos son los elefantes de América Latina.” She had no idea why the woman said it, but it sounded far more like philosophy than anything she’d ever thought.

“There,” says the man, “the torches.”

The torch-bearing boys, in black Speedos, descend the steps. The crowd applauds. The boys dump their torches in a bin by a table and cut through the crowd to the low wall against which Mia and others have wedged themselves, to get the best view of the inlet and the spotlighted cliff across from it. One by one the boys hop over the wall and work their way down the sloped bank to the water. There is a splash: one has dived into the inlet. He surfaces, shakes his head. He sways in the current and swims over to the base of the cliff, then hoists himself out of the water. As he climbs, another boy dives into the water and swims to the cliff. In time all nine boys make it across and work their way barefoot up the eighty-foot cliff-face, just as Elvis had. Mia thinks of her rush-hour drives to work. This is a much tougher commute, but they make it look so easy.

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The diving was fabulous, of course. Fantastisch! But the fact that you knew what was coming somehow flattened the magic and made it seem like an experience you’d already had. But the boys’ monkey-scurrying up the rock was very cool.

“Barbary apes,” says the man, who is still there, angling his camera to catch a glimpse of a diver as he scrambles back up the sloped bank and onto the pier. “Do you know them?” he says over the crowd’s applause.

“Apes?” says Mia. “Of course.” Although she doesn’t. But in a foreign country, among strangers, a lie is the same as the truth, or better. She is watching the boy’s bird-lean body as he hops back over the low wall, his black hair short and shiny, the water thin streams down his shoulders. How do they not split on impact?

“Do you think skin has a memory?” says Mia.

The man doesn’t answer. Mia thinks some more about the skin thing. “Have you ever done something with your face, a look or expression, and then suddenly it’s like déjà vu and you’re totally someplace else, maybe years ago, the time when you last made that face?”

“There are two more performances,” says the man. Then he stops angling his camera and addresses Mia: “Why are you here?”

“Last week I was driving,” she says, “and I was thinking about my grandma. It was late, and I was a bit out of it. All of a sudden I start getting twitchy-eye. And then I looked down at the ground. That’s when I got this weird wiggly-sideways feeling. Like a flashback? And then it was like I was eight years old again. Not sad or anything, just that that was the last time — I don’t know if it had happened before then, but that was the last time my body remembered doing that twitchy-sideways face.”

Then she settles back into herself. “I’m here with my husband. For the divers.” She looks up at the shrine at the top of the cliff and frowns. “Is that what you mean?”

He smiles. “You are a tourist?”

“I guess,” says Mia. Then she realizes she isn’t, not exactly. “No, no. It’s much more.”

“We’ll discuss it over drinks,” says the man, nodding in the direction of the hotel entrance. “I am Dieter.”

“My name is Mia,” says Mia.

She is being gently guided by a stranger, and she is intrigued by how natural it feels, how uncomplicated, as though there is no reason for it to feel otherwise. So natural, in fact, that it would be inappropriate, ungrateful, to object. She can’t think of the last time she allowed herself to let something happen, to let herself be carried off. And when you decide, when you really make up your mind, things happen so easily. They want to happen. They just need a little nudge.

Dieter goes to the restroom. The waiter brings menus. Mia sits at the table and wonders about Finn. She is so glad he didn’t come. It didn’t mean anything to him, and if he was in the same mood he’d been in since they arrived, which was likely, he would have ruined her special evening. The restaurant’s main chef had quit again. Finn got rid of him. The temporary chef turned out to be the manager’s kids’ godfather, and a bus mechanic. Finn got rid of him too. So now they had an Argentine steakhouse — “Don’t ask,” Mia would say — with no one to work the grill. Even when they had friends over for cookouts, Finn would set up his cocktail station in the lounge and let someone else do the grilling. He hated getting smoky. It put him in a mood. He said he could still smell it in his nose the next morning. That it took him four showers to get out. Well, he was in a foul mood now. If he didn’t find a new grill-master today, the restaurant would have to close.

Mia is tired of the saga, tired of Finn’s “creative solutions.” Since being here she’s seen a whole new side of him. He never was much of a fixer, but Mia realizes now for the first clear time that he has no clue how to run a business. She’s mad because it’s taken her so long to see this, and even madder because Finn told her that it was his job, that he would handle it. Her job was being pregnant. Now that he hasn’t done what he said he would do, again, Mia is out of ideas. All she knows is that she’s quite capable of building a financially ruinous future with Toby Vance on her own, without Finn’s help. She also knows this is the last time he’s putting any of her money into anything.

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When Mia gets back from the divers, Finn is watching TV in the bar. They order drinks and a snack and go out to the candlelit terrace overlooking the bay. It’s late and deserted, apart from the two waiters inside playing cards.

“They wouldn’t know an easy life if it smashed them in the face,” says Finn, talking about the feud between his chef and his manager.

“They must need the work,” says Mia. “Can’t you incentivize them?”

“Great idea,” says Finn. “I’ve got an incentive, it’s called ‘a job’. They can bullshit the paycheck all they want, they’re not taking money out of my pocket. No más.”

Mia listens, but her mind keeps drifting back to the sight of the divers, scrambling up the cliff-face and then leaping out into the impossibly limitless night, their arms high and wide in salutation. It’s then that she thinks she sees something, or half-sees it, moving around her. She might have imagined it. But then something knocks the table. She leaps from her chair.

“Raccoon,” says Finn. He hisses, and it backs off. But then another one appears through the fence.

“They look evil,” says Mia.

“Nothing a spade to the head wouldn’t fix,” says Finn.

Mia feels swarmed, overrun. Fear fogs her mind. “I’m going to the room,” she says.

“Go, go,” says Finn, dismissing her.

Mia leaves him to his raccoon impressions. She imagines the creatures advancing on him, ready to pounce and savage.

Later, when Finn comes into the room, Mia is lying awake in the dark counting all the single moms she knows or has heard of. Ashley, Andrea, Becky, Meredith, Jess . . . Actually, there’s lots.

Finn leaves the light off.

“You’re still alive then?” says Mia.

Finn doesn’t reply, but she can feel the sad weight of him in the dark.

“Drama, drama,” he says. His shoes thump against the far wall.

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Squeezed in the backseat of a taxi, wearing a dress that does nothing to hide her bulge, Mia isn’t sure if she’s in the mood to make history. The feeling isn’t completely new: she felt the same in her gynecologist’s office, after she’d confirmed her pregnancy. But she’s alone here, with a baby, and that’s different.

She’d been lonely for much of her pregnancy, and that loneliness had been like a rising wall separating her old self from the Mia-to-be. It was supposed to be normal, but she knew it wasn’t. What would happen, she wondered, when the future became her present and the past just disappeared? She didn’t want to give up the past. And she didn’t want a present so draining and stressful that there wasn’t time for the past. The thought of constantly building a future was terrifying. The fear of it wore her down.

The taxi stops at the zócalo. She likes the oomph of the word, like a spade breaking earth, or an oar cutting water. Either way, she feels like she’s entered a different world. The air and sounds and light are from a time even before Elvis, before the airport was built, before Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. Even if such a time never existed here, Mia believes that it did.

There’s music from speakers on the bandstand. And dancing. The dancers are a mix of old and young couples — the men in pants and pressed shirts, the women in dresses or skirts. Dancing unnerves Mia. Being near it. She isn’t good at it, and she makes sure she’s far enough away from it to not get roped in. But to her amazement, and in a way she has never known, the dancing begins to draw her closer, begins lulling her, like the sway of river grass. A lily opens inside her.

She watches the dancers go through their steps, never moving far. It’s as though the dance was invented by someone who lived in a box. The formal harmony of the dancers makes Mia stand a fraction straighter, newly mindful of her posture, vicariously elegant. How would she start to let go? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if someone did take her arm, like Dieter had, and led her to dance. It would be rude to decline. Mia finds herself moving through the audience and closer to the bandstand, to get a better view. An old man wearing a white fedora smiles at her. “What is this?” she asks. “Danzón,” he says, presenting the scene to her, as if in offering.

Just then Dieter arrives. He taps her arm.

“I didn’t know humans could dance like this,” she says. “The people here are not like us.”

Dieter nods. “In danzón the passion is so . . .” He mimics trying to squeeze something together. “Contained. Intense. Each move means so much.”

The trumpets are tinny and distorted, and Mia’s ears start to hurt. They walk away through the square. The sun is strong, but the banyan and rubber trees shade most of it and soften the heat. Men sit on benches and read newspapers, take shoeshines, or smoke cigarettes and look on. Women bustle about. On the far side is a blue church with two domes. In the middle of the square is a fountain, and a fan of paths lined by low hedges. Black birds caw from the trees.

Mia sits on a wall in a patch of sunlight while Dieter goes to buy water for the hike. She smiles watching him, his loaded backpack and camera. He is interesting, and he is making her think and feel differently. But she is happy to be alone now. The dancing has changed her. She feels poetic. For now she has become someone who can see further into things than the old Mia Pfefferle ever could. And then the sensation leaves her, like a regular melting mood, and she slips back to being plain old Mia. Now she doubts whether she has anything like poetry in her after all. Or dance.

It’s nice on her own, a white woman in a foreign city, but then that feeling also fizzles out and her mood sinks when she thinks of Finn, and how much difference he could have made if he’d thought of doing something nice for them after he’d fixed the mess at the restaurant. Like booking a surprise romantic trip. It would have meant so much. But he never thought about things like that, and it wasn’t likely to cross his mind now. He’s probably so enmeshed in disaster that he’s forgotten Mia even came on the trip with him.

Dieter is back with the water.

“Where’s your hat?” he says. “It’s very open up high.”

Mia feels good in her sleeveless sundress. She has a few things in her shoulder bag, but not a hat. She doesn’t like hats. His has fabric hanging from the back of it, the way of people in the desert. He’s wearing long shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Very roomy. Only his calves and hands are showing.

“Did you bring anything for the sun?” he says.

Mia doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what he means.

§

Dieter has his own car, plus directions to the site, so he drives. Waiting in traffic, Mia hears a strained scale from a reverberating trumpet. It sounds as though somebody’s playing it in the bath. She looks to see where the sound is coming from. Above the pharmacy, through the open shutters of a rooftop apartment, stands a schoolgirl, perhaps ten. She has a trumpet to her lips, and her grandma is watching from a nearby chair. The scene reminds Mia of her cello lessons when she was young, how she wrestled the bulky instrument between her knees as though it were alive. She sees an image of herself now, with a full-size cello, in an unfamiliar room, sterile and vaulted. Maybe it’s a sign that she’ll take up music again when she returns home, though she doubts there’ll be time for such luxuries.

“Welcome to Palma Sola,” says the man in the Welcome Center, coming out from behind his desk. They shake hands and he shows them the visitors’ book. He fishes for a pen — Dieter produces one from his top pocket — and stands by to advise them on what information goes where. They are the first visitors of the day. It has been a quiet week. Two days ago a woman from Kazakhstan came to draw petroglyphs. The man points to her name in the visitors’ book. There is no admission fee, he says, but donations can be left in the box. When they’re leaving, he repeats the part about the donations. “Yes, yes,” says Dieter. “When we come down.”

Mia follows Dieter out the door and toward the stone steps. The blue veins in Dieter’s calves are like scrambled cells, how they look under a microscope. Mia thinks of the revolution her body has gone through in recent months — not the right thought for a hot day. She feels a strong pinch of heat in the backs of her knees, and can’t wait to get to the top.

The path winds steeply. Offshoots lead to rock formations and individual boulders, many smooth and oval, and so precisely placed they couldn’t possibly have arrived there by chance. Their presence, their being, feels too intentional, too inevitable, to be down to chance. Many are adorned with carved figures doing whatever the people there did three thousand years ago — worship deities, perform fertility rites, dance. Mia studies the stick figures carved into the boulders. She gets the drawings okay, mostly, and enjoys tracing the looping lines connecting the figures and symbols, like it was one of those find-where-each-string-takes-you puzzles she sometimes did while waiting at the dentist’s. If there’s a quiz when she gets back to the Welcome Center, she won’t be able to say for sure what the different petroglyphs mean. But they do make her think of connections. And of her baby, Toby Vance. And of plain old-fashioned Vance, who probably would have thought the petroglyphs fake or phony. Actually, no. He wouldn’t. She remembered that he’d gone on a caving trip once, to Virginia. He told Mia about how he’d crawled on his belly for what felt like a mile, with the rock shelf only inches above him, its jagged surface sometimes scraping his back. The same claustrophobic feeling she’d had at that time now comes back to Mia, even though she couldn’t be more out in the open.

A particular image strikes her: a regular stick-figure woman, but with a round rock of a body. Looking at the image, Mia is jolted by the unignorable fact of her own swollen self, and her ever-growing belly, which shows no signs of slowing. Once she was slim and fit, now she’s this . . . this fat lump on legs. The more she thinks about the image and about her body and about what it’ll be like when all this growing is over and she’s finally the mother of a helpless adorable blob, the more she feels a sort of kindredness, a connection to something old and wise. The nudity in the drawings seems natural, not vain or attention grabbing. She surprises herself by not jumping to the kinds of conclusions she might have at home. (She’d only once sunbathed topless, at a friend’s house, when she was fifteen. There were five girls. The friend whose house it was went into the kitchen and came back outside with popsicles. Then she laughed at Mia, saying she had the body of a twelve-year-old boy, and the smallest boobs in the school. Mia cried. She got dressed and went home. That was the last time she showed her body.)

Close to the top, Dieter guides Mia gently by the elbow. He seems to like touching her. Mia says nothing, but she likes it also, the way he does it without asking. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might not like it. After all, what’s not to like? Was that more European, she wonders. Unlike Finn, Dieter doesn’t spend most of his time explaining what he’s going to do or worrying about what he has to do or imagining all the things that might go wrong when he finally does whatever he decides to do. Something occurs to Dieter, and he does it. He doesn’t stop himself for no reason, and he doesn’t get in his own way. Mia likes that very much.

“Here it is,” he says. They stand at the cave entrance. In front of it are several long stones, again carved with stick figures connected by looping lines. Mia looks at the figures, then at the cave. It has a high roof and goes back into blackness, but she can’t see whether it’s the kind of cave Vance explored in Virginia. That cave was barely visible from the outside, he’d said. Just a few stones marking the entrance. This one is very visible. A giant waiting mouth.

“Are there bats?” she says.

“Let’s see,” says Dieter.

Vance said that in the cave in Virginia there were so many bats, and that they glistened from the light on his hard hat as he passed, as though dusted with sugar. They were hibernating. Vance was scared when the trip leader told them not to shine their lamps on the bats because the heat might wake them. What if all those bats suddenly awoke in a panic and took flight?

And then Dieter is gone. Sitting there, feeling his new absence, and her new solitude, the wind seems firmer to Mia, more resolute, as though it has rushed in to fill the new space.

“It’s nice and cool,” he calls.

Mia can’t see him, can’t tell where his voice is coming from. She climbs onto one of the rocks and looks down at the bay. She can’t see the whole horseshoe, just the middle slice, but the view is stunning. There’s a strong warm breeze rising, and she feels herself ease into it in the warmth of the sun, dropping her shoulders and tilting her head.

When Dieter comes out, Mia is sunning herself on the rock. She’s almost forgotten about him. She’s somewhere else entirely: at the weir, staring at the slick rush of water as it poured over the lip. It was so pure, so unbroken, like you could stand in it on a summer’s day and sing. She liked to sing. Vance said she was annoying, but he always said things he didn’t mean. That was how he loved her.

High above the bay, beyond the car horns and fireworks, the trumpets and steeple bells, one might believe that beneath the chaos and poverty, the corruption and violence, Mexico had in its earth an old deep peace, and that the surface havoc of everyday life came from a newer world, one lost and adrift from the old. But Mia isn’t thinking that. The bay is wide and shining, and she’s thinking she doesn’t want to go down there again, not if it means going back to Finn.

She sits up, feels her bulge. She looks at Dieter’s hand now on the rock beside her. He’s tracing one of the looping tails with a finger. But for the rustle of nearby trees, it is silent.

The quiet continues. Mia waits to hear a bird, but there aren’t any. Then after a while she says, “Photograph me.”

Dieter thinks about it. Then he says, “OK.”

He removes the lens cap from his camera and takes some warm-up shots of the line drawings on the rock, of the cave.

Mia kicks off her sneakers and socks, stretches her legs. The rock is hot and grainy, and her calves go tight with the heat. She lowers herself onto the rock, under the full afternoon sun, and lies onto it until she’s fully stretched. She is alone on the rock with her baby. This moment is hers. Finn is a roll of old carpet she’s been strapped in, her arms pinned, her breath stifled. With her eyes closed, she curls her fingers into the rock and grips tight. Sloughing his cracked-rubber shell, she feels his suffocating roughness slide down the length of her body, until at last he’s cut away, cast off to a past she’ll never recall.

Without the weight she’s been carrying so long, she feels inconceivably light, liable to rise up at any moment and float above the rock she’s been clutching.

She rests her hands on her bulge. “I want to go back to the dance,” she says. “Goddammit I do.”

“Very well,” says Dieter. The shutter clicks, clicks again. “Imagine yourself in the dance. What is the feeling?”

“My skin is new,” shouts Mia.

“You are in the dance,” he says, moving around her, clicking away. “What do you see?”

“My new skin,” she says.

“Dance, dance,” he says, coming in lower and closer.

“Meet my new skin,” she says to the lens, which is so close to her face now that Dieter has all but ceased to exist. “This is my new skin,” she says. “And it’s perfect for dancing in.”

—John Bullock

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John Bullock teaches Language Arts to rural high schoolers in Ohio and parents an old male cat with a fang. He earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Virginia, and has published a novel (Making Faces) and a number of short stories. He is currently procrastinating fixing up the old house he just bought and finishing a second novel.

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