Not A Chance
by Jessica Treat
She was the kind of person who would find a small piece of glass in her
sausage, take it out, and then keep on eating. Once we were having breakfast
in a restaurant and her potatoes arrived with a fly on them. A dead one.
She didn't think I saw it, I could tell. I pretended not to notice as
she carefully flicked it to one side, then dropped it to the floor very
quietly. I watched her eat her potatoes. I couldn't help thinking about
it. I thought it disturbed her too, I saw her wince; she was having trouble
finishing them. "Why don't you send them back? How can you go on eating
"What?" she said. She really seemed at first not to know what I
was referring to. "Oh well," she said. "It was just a fly. People are
so squeamish." She smiled then.
It was her smile that did it, the way it seemed to come from some hidden
reservoir, a light source almost--no, I'm not explaining this well. It's
that she wasn't beautiful; she was almost plain-looking, but when she
smiled, it changed everything. It was a gift. She smiled and you felt
warmed; you lost yourself a moment just looking at her. She caught you
up in it and you suddenly wanted to be a part of her. It wasn't always
like that. These were moments.
I see it now like that fly, or the speck of glass in her sausage. Anyone
else would have stopped eating. Only she would go on to finish the sausage.
There's something wrong about it. But she was like that. With him. Of
course at first it wasn't noticeable. But eventually it was there: the
fly, the speck of glass, the things about him that anyone else would have
stopped at. He must have liked that about her: that she didn't stop, that
she persisted. She loved him. At least she thought she did. But who am
I to say she didn't? What is love after all, but an image we carry inside
ourselves? She told me she loved him better than anyone else who'd ever
lived. She thought they'd known each other in some other life; in fact,
she was quite sure of it. But I'm jumping ahead.
She told me how they met. It was in Café Gaby's. She was writing
when he came in. She worked as a translator and used to bring her work
to the cafe. From the beginning she was very aware of him. He had a book,
a thick book; he was reading from it and laughing. She wanted to ask him
what it was. She couldn't see from where she was. But she couldn't make
herself ask him. She was shy that way. And then since she wasn't going
to talk to him, but could think of nothing else, she decided to leave.
She hadn't seen him approaching. She thought he'd ask for matches. He
asked for a piece of paper instead. She tore one from her notebook. It
ripped and she had to start again. He stood looking at her. "Will you
be here tomorrow so I can borrow more paper?" She laughed and said she
They met the next day. He told her he needed to learn Spanish; he still
couldn't speak it very well. "What you need is a Mexican girlfriend,"
she said. "Let's see," she said, thinking of her own friends, "what kind
of girls do you like?"
"Oh, someone like you," he said.
It made her laugh. I know she told him she was married.
It didn't cost her anything to say she was. She still loved her husband,
or thought she did. I saw that they were drifting apart even then, but
I never thought they would leave each other. I thought they needed to
take a vacation together, to sort of start all over. I think she thought
so too; I know she used to, but when she met the American she gave up
on everything. Not initially, but gradually, very gradually but definitively,
until those of us who had known her found ourselves trying to avoid her.
But I've jumped ahead.
He left her--left Mexico, that is. They had a date in
the cafe the day before he was leaving. She told me she got there late--maybe
fifteen or twenty minutes--her boss had held her captive with a dictation.
She arrived out of breath, running. She looked around for him but he wasn't
there yet. She sat down and waited. The waiter arrived and handed her
a folded piece of paper. It was a note from him. She told me what it said:
"Remember what I said about keeping a distance with people I love"--something
like that. I can't remember exactly. She told me shed ripped it
up into small pieces, dropped it in her coffee.
He didn't remember the note. That's what she told me. She thought it
was funny: the words that had made her cry, that she'd turn over in her
head, again and again ... He didn't remember writing them. "It sounds
like something I'd have written..." was what he said. How could he not
remember it? It made her laugh, though I can't see the humor in it. What
he did remember was a letter she'd written him, a very short letter. She
had an address for him, a post box somewhere in Arizona, and she'd written
him a note, telling him about the weather and a weekend she'd gone on
with her husband.
When he ran into her on the street again, almost a year since he'd seen
her, maybe six or eight months since she'd sent the letter, the first
thing he said was, "So you had a rainy summer?" She nodded. She couldn't
believe she was seeing him again. But later he asked her: "Are you still
married to a Mexican?"
She said that she was. "But not for long," she added. "I've decided to
leave him..." She told me that it was a decision she'd made that very
day, an hour or two before running into him.
It's not easy to get a divorce in Mexico. Her husband didn't want to
give her one. He tried to understand what had happened but he really failed
to. He used to ask me what it was, "Is it because he's American? But he's
just a kid..." I think he thought she'd get over it and come back to him.
That's what we all thought, actually. But even before their separation,
before her husband knew anything, he met the kid. She had invited him
over; she thought her husband could find a job for him.
She was very brazen about it. Of course her husband knew--just seeing
how they looked at each other was enough to let him know they were itching
to sleep together. But then because he was cautious, because he didn't
want to accuse her unjustly, he waited until they left and watched them
from the window. And he saw the way she kissed him. She did it fully on
his lips; she didn't seem to realize or care that anyone in the world
could see them.
He was furious. What did she take him forun pendejo? Did
she think him a complete fool? I saw that too: it was as if a part of
her, the years they'd had together when she'd really loved him, were frozen
up in her. It was that night that he raped her. Of course, he didn't use
that expression--she did. He told me only that he'd forced her to have
sex with him. He hadn't meant to. He wanted to make love to her and when
she resisted, said she was sleepy, he got angry. "Why won't you have sex
with your own husband? Que te pasa? he asked her.
"I just don't feel like it... I'm tired..."
"What makes you so tired? You've gotten enough already? Someone else
has already laid it to you?"
He kept at her. She tried to struggle out from under him, but he thrust
himself in and even though she cringed and cried out, it only made him
try harder. With each thrust he drove her further away from him. He knew
that; he knew then that he'd ruined any chance of getting her back again.
Later he apologized; he wanted a chance to start over. He asked for an
explanation, "But why," he asked her, "why him?" She couldn't explain
it; maybe she didn't feel that she needed to. "We knew each other as children,"
she once said. "What? What are you talking about? You mean you knew each
other before?" "Yes," she said, "but not literally..." He couldn't understand
this. He asked me about it. I think he thought because I was part gringa
(my mother was Canadian, my father Mexican) that I could explain it to
him, but I couldn't explain it any better than she had. I think I even
told him that she'd get over it.
She found a tiny square of an apartment in the city center. It didn't
even have a phone. The few windows faced the courtyard where women did
their laundry. It made me sad to see her there. But she liked it. All
she cared about was that her husband give her the divorce papers. But
he wouldn't do that for her. Not yet. He wasn't ready to.
It isn't easy to find an apartment as a woman alone in Mexico. They think
they're renting to prostitutes. The sign had said: Apartment for rent.
Married couples only. So she said she was married. And after all, she
was. The lady didn't suspect anything. She rented her the room and only
later met "the senor." She must have known he wasn't really her husband--he'd
be there for three days and then he'd disappear again. "My husband's a
salesman, he does business in the States," she told the portera,
which was a good explanation except the kid was clearly not a salesman.
He was so obviously just that: a kid.
The first time they made love was when they decided they had met in another
lifetime. I shouldn't say "decided," I should say "realized," since that
was what she said. None of this part seems that important to me, but to
her of course it was. She said he acted surprised that they were so passionate.
I don't doubt that they were that: passionate in bed. And afterwards he
said: "What did you say you were in your last life?"
"I didn't," she said.
"I thought you said you were a countess in France..."
"A countess, very beautiful. I think we knew each other then. But I wasn't
noble; I was just a stable boy or something..."
Once decided on the story, they made love again.
She was like that, I guess, a romantic. She believed in things like coincidence.
Birthdays, initials, numbers and dates carried all sorts of meaning for
her. And it was the same with him. She was forever telling me all the
things they had in common, that their minds seemed to run parallel: how
they'd meet somewhere in the city by accident, how they were always running
into each other. She'd be walking and suddenly find him resting at the
bus stop of a bus he wouldn't get on; sitting on a park bench talking
to a shoeshine man. No, he didn't want his own shined. He liked the scuff
marks. Yes, but once he'd let a cobbler fix his flapping shoe sole and
hed gotten a headache--those nails seemed to pound right into him
as he walked... This was what she told me: somehow her senses always led
her to him. Not all of it was serendipitous; however, once she told me
how he was always surprised to find her walking into the cafe just after
he had (they never specified a time), when the truth was she'd sat in
the library opposite, waiting and looking for him. So I'd have to say
she engineered a lot of it.
There was one thing that was uncanny, however. And it says something
about him, and why we tried to make her leave him. To begin with, he never
had any money. She would lend him some, small installments, though she
never outright supported him. They didn't want to do it that way. He had
his own room somewhere and he'd find money where he could: an odd job,
a relative in the States who sent him something; I really don't know what
else he did.
It's hard to come by books in English and she had a lot of them. She
had lent him some--maybe ten or twelve of her favorite ones. And that
was that until one day she wandered into the British Bookstore. She was
leafing through a book when she heard some commotion in the back. She
saw a fellow in a rumpled overcoat through the open door, another over
coated man with him. She watched them. It was like watching a play; the
man was acting. She realized he was selling used books, being dramatic
about it, bargaining for better prices as he gesticulated wildly. His
friend and the bookstore manager--his audience--were laughing. And suddenly
she realized that this man, so frenzied and dramatic, was her lover. She
stepped forward to greet him and then stopped. They were her books he
"You're selling my books!" she said, scooping them up off the table,
not even glancing at the men. She picked out her favorites--maybe four
or five of them--saying, "You can sell the rest of them. Im keeping
these ones," and clasped them to her, while the men (and even her lover
seemed a stranger then) only stared at her. It was as if she'd just ruined
a very good show. Even the store owner seemed to resent her.
She was upset when she told me. "But isn't it strange?" she kept saying,
"I walked into the bookstore at the very moment when..."
I agreed that it was. "Maybe it's good that you caught him. If he'd sell
your books, who knows how else he'd betray you?"
But she shook her head. "He couldn't have made much money ... I would
have given him the money..." It seemed to hurt her more that he didn't
just ask her for it.
"How can you trust him now?" I kept asking. "It scares me. He could do
something to you..."
She smiled then, "Don't be silly. They're only books," and the way she
said it reminded me of the fly I'd seen her flick aside in the restaurant.
It would have been one thing if he had loved her as she did him, but
he didn't; he was forever evading her. I know that when she wasn't with
him she was looking for him. In the end that's all she did: look for him.
But she told me about one time--before the end--when they were together
in the way that she wanted; she told me having that one time made everything
else worth it.
They went to a town in Veracruz for the weekend. They took a bus there
and stayed in an old hotel on a beach somewhere. She paid for everything.
She came back looking very tan, burnt actually. She kept talking about
the smell in Veracruz, the way plants smell: a fetid odor of green things
rotting. She said she liked it. She said anywhere you went, any town or
beach or patio or plaza, that smell was there. It was a good smell, dank
I thought she must be talking about sex. I didn't know what she was referring
to. I figured the whole affair was going rotten--it was stinking--and
she was in the putrid part of it.
But what does that mean really? I didn't want to imagine it. And isn't
it true that when our friends need us most--when they're farthest gone--is
when we pull back from them. If I had known--but she wasn't who I'd known
before... What was there to talk about with her after all? I didn't want
to hear about the smell in Veracruz, about the kid selling her things
or her litany of what made her love him. I started to avoid her. Which
wasn't hard, of course, because our circles were not the same now. It
was the same with her husband--once we occupied her world, but that world
didn't exist anymore. It's only now that I can make an effort to imagine
what it was like for her.
For instance, we know that the kid disappeared. It was shortly after
their trip to Veracruz. Maybe that was his goodbye to her. Because he
was always leaving her; his life consisted of deserting people before
they deserted him. He didn't want to get hurt again. She explained this
to me. It was because of his childhood, a very difficult one--complete
with divorce and a mother who wanted to be rid of him. But who among us
has not had a difficult childhood, tumultuous in its own way, but finally
not so different from any other... I thought she was making excuses for
So each time he left her in the morning while she still slept or kissed
her on the lips outside the cafe or said goodbye to her in front of her
apartment (no, tonight he couldn't come in... tomorrow maybe), he was
practicing for the real one. She knew this and she lived in dread, never
knowing if this goodbye, if this disappearance, was the last one.
I would think by the time he left she'd gotten whatever it was she'd
wanted from him, that in some way she was satiated, even if it only meant
knowing that he loved her--after all, he'd practiced leaving her for almost
a year. I would think, in a way, it came as a relief: to have him finally
gone after having been dragged through so many rehearsals.
But this is the part I find strange. After knowing this about him, knowing
it well enough that she even told me: "He's going to leave me, I know
he is, he's leaving soon..." and not only knowing it, but agreeing to
it, agreeing to it as part of what it meant to be involved with him, after
so much preparation; when the final departure came, she refused to accept
it. She convinced herself he hadn't really left her.
I wouldn't have found this out, but her husband asked if I would tell
her something. He wanted her to know that he'd get her the papers--he
could see she wasn't coming back to him--and be couldn't get hold of her.
He'd written her but she never answered. He thought it must be because
she couldn't stand him; he asked me to speak for him. I said that I would.
I felt guilty because I hadn't seen her; I'd barely spoken or even thought
about her in two or three months--maybe longer.
I stopped by her apartment but no one answered. In the office where she
did translations, they told me she hadn't been in for over a month; they
assumed she'd found a different job...gotten sick or pregnant... I went
back to her apartment. I asked the portera about her; had she come
and gone recently?
No," she told me, "and she owes me rent ... de hecho," she
said, "is she really married? I have my doubts... It was all right before,
but now with the rent she owes... No queremos ser una casa de esas
we can't have a house of disrepute here."
I paid through the month; I asked if she'd open the room. "It could possibly
be arranged..." I gave her another bill and she told me to follow her.
I wasn't sure what I was looking for. The refrigerator was almost empty
(but then, wasn't it always? She'd told me she stopped cooking when she
left her husband) and there were tortillas and bread that'd gone moldy.
Yet all her things seemed in place; I found her suitcase in the closet;
it didn't look as though she'd packed up to go anywhere. A small sense
of panic was growing inside me. I needed a clue, something to tell me
where she'd gone, to reassure me she was still around...
"Is she coming back soon?" the portera was asking me.
I nodded, still gazing around the room. I glanced through the papers
on her desk--letters and reports she'd translated--nothing that told me
"Well, I hope so, I can't have an empty room..."
"What?" I said. I realized the portera was at my elbow. "Oh no,"
I said. "You can't rent the room. I know where she is. I'm bringing her
back," as if I really did and would.
She nodded. I saw it was time for me to go. Whatever I'd come for, I
hadn't found it.
I walked slowly from her apartment. The sky seemed to have whitened and
the air felt dense to me, as if it were hiding something. I didn't even
know where I was going; my feet seemed to be taking me somewhere on their
own. And then I realized: of course, to Cafe Gaby's. It wasn't far from
where she lived. She'd always spent so much time there
It was dark and smoky inside the cafe; it always was, no matter what
time of day. I took a seat near the window and ordered an espresso. It
wasn't long before Gabriel approached me. "Your friend left this here--you
know who I'm talking about, la gringa... I was keeping it to give back
to her, but I haven't seen her..." He handed me a tattered blue notebook
I recognized as her own.
"When did you last see her?"
Gabriel shrugged. "I don't know... maybe a month? Did she leave? I'm
surprised she hasn't come back for this--I don't know, I can't read English,
but I think it's her masterpiece," he winked at me, "you know, a great
novel she was writing...she was always writing in here... You'll see that
it gets to her?"
I nodded. I watched him walk away, then stop to greet someone else, another
customer. My heart was beating as I held the notebook, as if in it I held
the solution, as if a great mystery were going to be solved by it. I opened
the tattered blue cover to look at the first page. I was quickly disappointed.
It was filled with actuarial valuations and credit analyses, reports she
had done for the company. What had I expected? Did I really believe she'd
been doing any other kind of writing? Yet I felt cheated. I tried to see
if she'd dated any of the reports, at least to know the last one she'd
worked on. But none of them had dates; they were messy and filled with
cross-outs; there didn't even seem to be a real order to them--in the
middle of a letter of credit, she'd translated an insurance policy. There
was even writing in the margins. How scrunched up and illegible her handwriting
was! I read one, through the maze of cross-outs and lines that zigzagged
through the margin. I thought it must be what I was looking for. I looked
for others; there were four in all.
Last night he was wearing his shirt the color of ripe tomato
and I saw his hands: long fingers, nicotine-stained, broken nails, and
his laugh was like a waterfall, tumbling down over rocks, boulders.
I tumbled with him into a still dark pool, found his mouth underwater.
He showed me where he lives. It is dark like his mind, clothes
are scattered like his thoughts, and the air smells of crusty
socks, worn-out shoes. Here seasons are confused. We fall onto
his bed and I feel his weight on top of me. His chin scrapes my
cheek; my face burns under his.
The room seems to have lived through storms. Across the street
the nightclub robs the dark with its bright lights and music,
florescent green. Somewhere church bells chime the hour. I count
eleven, twelve, thirteen--bury my face in his chest, my nose in his
underarms. I taste onions: raw, bleeding. I trace the scars on his body--this
one where he dove into a river and a tree trunk caught him. This
one where he crashed his motorcycle. This one--when he was born.
Hollows of hunger. A place I hadn't known before. "These are places
you must go," he tells me. It is dark and gnawing: a cave, hungry and
black, to swallow us Surely I will die here, or be left alone. He laughs.
His laughter echoes in all of the rooms, takes me to a corner, a hard
shell. I bump into walls, watch my body bruise. A pain: sharp through
the roof of my mouth, through my abdomen, the sound teeth make when
they grind ... but it's gone. The room, black but soft, envelops
me: I am alone..
I felt like smoking, though I hadn't smoked in years. I asked the man
at the next table for a cigarette; he lit it for me. It was a Delicado,
which are not delicate at all, but what the hell; it tasted good. I inhaled
deeply, watching the smoke blow out through my fingers. I went through
the pages once more, very slowly and carefully. I was looking for other
messages or signs, a drawing even, a sin-le word. I'd read through the
valuations and reports word for word, when I saw on the back inside cover
some writing in pencil that had been smudged and smeared:
I can smell him: cigarettes and crusty socks, stained fingers and
pale, pale skin, freckled and long fingers and nails that haven't been
cut, will be broken before they are cut, a shirt that smells of sweat,
days of sweat, tangled hair, swamp hair underarms...
I ordered another espresso, sipping it as I reread. It reminded me of
something... What had she said? A smell of green things rotting... What
made her like it so? And what difference did it make, after all, that
she'd liked the smell in Veracruz, that she liked the way the kid smelled
... It still meant nothing to me, gave me nothing more to go on than what
I'd already found, yet I couldn't help feeling that there was something
I used the phone across the street from the cafe to call her husband.
"Did you ever go to Veracruz with your wife?"
"No..." he told me.
"Well, if she were to go by herself or with someone else, say, to a little
beach town somewhere, where would she go--do you know?"
There was a long pause. "I remember something," he said. "She wanted
me to go there with her... I didn't want to--you know, being an American
everything was new to her. But to me--Veracruz is ugly--they've got tar
on the beaches from so many oil slicks there ... it's dirty, it's nothing
like the Carribean, or the Pacific..."
'You fool,' I wanted to say, 'why didn't you go with her?' Suddenly it
all seemed his fault--if only he'd taken her, when she'd wanted him to...
"Where was it she wanted to go?"
"I can't remember--some little beach town..."
"I know that--but which one? Where?"
"All right, all right ... I'm thinking..."
I could hear him thinking. There was something slow about him, methodical.
I'd never really seen him that way before, but I suddenly found him plodding,
"A little town below Tuxpan..."
"Below Tuxpan," I repeated. I was writing this down in her notebook.
"I can't recall the name--it had an old hotel there..."
"Yes," I interrupted, "that's the one--what's the name?"
"I don't know, I'm thinking. Look," he said. "You'll find it on a map,
any decent map... Why do you need to know?"
"She's gone," I told him. "She's disappeared."
There was silence on the other end of the line.
"So what does a town in Veracruz have to do with it?"
"I don't know I'm not sure ... I just feel it does, that's all."
Silence again. "Is she really gone?" he asked. "What do you mean-she
disappeared? Didn't she just take a trip somewhere?"
"Yes," I said. "A trip somewhere. Leaving all of her things behind, not
paying the rent in her apartment ... saying goodbye to no one..."
"And you want to look in Veracruz?"
"Yes," I said, "I'm going there..."
* * *
I found myself on an ADO bus, watching the landscape through the window.
I thought of her sitting as I was, eyes fixed on the window. Of course,
the kid was next to her, maybe leaning his weight against her shoulder.
I wondered what the landscape said to her. The city with its endless suburbs
had been left behind long ago; we were in the mountains now. Dry and dusty,
they rose on one side of the road. The road snaked around the girth of
them and every once in a while in the valley below, I'd see a group of
scattered huts, and then a sign by the side of the road to announce the
fact that they made up a town: San Juan, Naranjos, Chicontepec, or I'd
see a sign and no houses at all, but a lonely dirt road forking off somewhere.
Then suddenly there were trees--whole forests of pine. A dense fog encircled
us as we drove slowly through the pines. The air was crisp and cool. There
was a slow and winding descent and when we finally emerged, it seemed
to me (did she see it that way also?) it was like peeling off a husk to
find the fruit within, moist and succulent, shining green--as if it'd
been there all this time, whole and intact, waiting for you to lift it
out and bite right into it. I opened the window as far as it would go,
and the air that came in was warm and balmy. I saw orange and lime groves,
fields of stumpy trees with bright red berries--coffee plantations--and
when the air grew denser and more humid, I watched the line of the sea
It wasn't hard to locate the hotel. It was old and run-down, but still
had some of its former elegance; once it had been a resort hotel, and
it wasn't hard to imagine women in white tennis outfits and men in shorts
with tanned calves walking through the hallways. There was something antiquated
about it, the feeling of a room in a museum which had been forgotten,
an exhibit collecting dust and cobwebs, an exhibit of faded elegance--old
wedding dresses, cognac glasses and crystal chandeliers.
I studied the contents of a glass case in the hotel lobby: a stuffed
armadillo, a set of shark's teeth and a marlin; a bottle of vanilla and
a package of vanilla-leaf cigarettes--"products of the region," according
to a hand-lettered sign. I rang the bell on the desk and a young girl
came out of a room behind me, ducked under the desk and brought out an
enormous guest book which she spread before me. "Sign here," she said.
I turned back the pages of the book--when had she come? June? July? No,
no--the end of May. There it was: her name and address, the room number.
"Can I have room 109?" I asked.
She looked at me, eyes narrowed, "You're lucky there's any room at all.
We were full last night." She turned to reach for the key and I saw that
nearly all the keys were there, hanging from numbered hooks.
The room was clean, with a neatly made bed, a view of the ocean through
the bougainvillea outside the window. I stretched out on the bed and closed
my eyes. I could bear the ocean, the waves crashing in rhythmic succession
against the shore. They lulled me; I felt suddenly peaceful, almost as
if I were lying on the sand and the waves were inches away from me.
I woke up to a vision of them (or was I asleep, dreaming?): he was making
love to her. Sunburnt and naked, their bodies fit together like a strange
sea animal--a crab with its shell removed--thrashing on the bed, breathing
hard. I felt that it was hurting her, chafing her where their reddened
skin rubbed, almost burned, but they kept on. I thought I heard her asking
him to--to keep on, to thrust harder, deeper; I thought she was asking
him to obliterate her.
I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I let the
water run for a long time as I tried to rub the image out from behind
I had a photo of her with me--one of those photo machine strips we'd
taken together some time ago--she was looking straight at the camera,
a warmth around the eyes. I took it with me as I made the rounds the next
morning: the beach, the small town and its plaza, the shops along the
outskirts. "Have you seen this person?" I asked the women who ran the
restaurants, the girl at the souvenir stand, the man who raked the beaches
clean. But no one remembered her. Only a boy who found me first on the
beach and then at the souvenir shop, who wanted to sell his services as
a guide to some nearby pyramids (Quiere ver las ruinas? Yo la
), said that he'd seen her. "Le veia con un guero,"
a light-skinned guy, muy enamorados," and he mimicked kissing
and hugging for me to illustrate his words.
"Oh, two, three weeks ago
It couldn't have been them--unless he was confused about the time? But
how could I count what a ten-year-old who wanted my money said as truthful?
"What were they doing? Where did you see them?"
He shrugged. "On the beach, they were always on the beach, always together,
eran novios, pues. No querian ir conmigo." They didn't want
Later, sitting on a bench in the plaza, I thought I could smell what
she had: the smell of dark wet earth, of green things rotting. It wasn't
a bad smell ... For a while I sat drinking in that smell, fingering her
notebook. It was worn and thin, not the thickness of the 100 hojas
papel bond she'd bought. I tried to imagine what was written on the
pages she'd torn out, pages of writing which had nothing at all to do
with her job. If only I had them...
There was nothing to do but to read through it again. I knew that I'd
already read every line, but it was all I had of her. There was still
the chance I'd see something. And at last I did find something--a very
small something. It was scrawled in pencil, very lightly, or so I thought
initially, until I realized it was only the impression of a pen pressed
down hard on a page now gone. The handwriting was different from hers,
more spindly, and at the same time, squatter: Not a Chance, not a chance,
They were his words, words he'd told himself over and over: he wasn't
going to fall in love with her, wasn't going to let himself. No matter
how much he felt the force of her love, an undertow pulling at him...
And she knew he was battling against it, trying hard not to succumb, standing
still in the ocean, resisting the wave's pull.
I was picturing them, imagining their end with eyes half-closed, when
a voice interrupted. "Pssst. Guerita." It was the boy Manuel. He
was out of breath from running, his eyes full of excitement, "Oiga
Si, los lleve a las ruinas
" It was
a rainy day, they couldn't stay on the beach, they went with me instead,
we took three buses to get there. I'll show you. If you want, we can go
What was the point? If he had taken them, why hadn't he remembered them
before? Wasn't it just a tale to get me to employ him? I made him describe
her again, and the kid too; the details he gave (her yellow bathing suit,
the kid's red-brown hair) felt accurate--or maybe that was how all tourists
looked and dressed in this beach town.
"All right, you'll show me then."
The bus was small and crowded, the road dusty and full of holes. I tried
to imagine them on the bus with him; it had been rainy, he said, not the
afternoon sun that we had. Every so often Manuel would make a comment,
"She's your sister or friend? Era muy bonita
The last bus let us off at the foot of a dirt road which took us to the
ruins. I realized that in different circumstances I'd be hearing Manuel
tell about the history of the area, the Totonaca Indians, the design and
structure of the pyramids. Now he was reconstructing the story of my friend.
Was it memory or imagination he was drawing from?
"Since it was cold that day, and they weren't dressed warmly enough,
she was always holding onto him, to get warm, I think..." he watched me
for my reaction. "They bought me tamarindo candy from the vendors,"
he gestured to the girls carrying baskets of tamarindo and plantain
chips in plastic bags (I took that as a sign I should buy him some, and
paid a young girl who'd been following us). "Eran bastante generosos,
quiero decir, ella era." It was she who paid for everything..."
I nodded; it sounded just like her.
Though the site was small and little-known, the ruins were impressive,
unlike any I'd visited. Neither Aztec nor Mayan, they were built like
crumbling wedding cakes, each tier a layer of nichos, small windows.
The largest pyramid numbered 364 nichos, Manuel told me (having
slipped into his repertoire), which with two more now gone from the top,
corresponded to the days of the year. We saw the ball court, the gran
plaza, but what intrigued me most was the way the jungle encroached
on the buildings; not long ago it had covered them all and still there
were mounds in the distance, clumpy hills, pyramids the jungle refused
"Follow me," my guide said, "I want to show you something." We climbed
to the top of the farthest pyramid, from where to one side we had a view
of steep hills and to the other, the horizon seemed to meet the ocean.
"It was up here that I saw him push her, you know, pretending to push
her off. He was joking, but she didn't like it. And then, when we walked
back she wouldn't talk to him."
"Is that true?"
"Claro. Of course it is. No voy a inventarlo," he
said, sounding much too old and serious for a ten-year-old. "He tried
to take her arm but she refused it. But later on the bus, on the way
home, she sat on his lap, you know because there weren't enough seats.
I stood of course. La verdad, senorita, is that I didn't trust
"Why?" I asked. We had descended the pyramid and were making our way
down the dirt road we'd walked in on.
"Le voy a decir una cosa," my guide said, watching me as
he spoke. "Se podia ver que el no era para ella, she wasn't
meant for him. Ella era mucho mas fina, y el
he didn't know
how to treat her. He shouldn't have let her pay for things, I would never
let mi novia do that, of course I let you buy me things, but that's
different, because I'm working for you, and anyway, you have lots of money,"
he smiled at me, "but with her... be didn't act like a real man."
"Yes, but American men are like that--women pay, men pay--it doesn't
"I've seen lots of Americans. Ellos son mis clientes pues, they're
my customers. He was different. I could see something bad was going to
happen to her because of him."
"But what are you talking about?"
He shrugged. We were waiting for the bus now, the first of our caravan-like
trek of three buses back.
"You can't just say something like that and drop it."
He seemed to study me. "What can I say? But if your friend has disappeared,
La selva lo rodea todo, there's jungle on all sides... No one would
know where to find her... Or who would be responsible."
I stared at him. "You're being ridiculous," I told him. He shrugged,
seemed to almost grin. Our bus had arrived and we boarded. We found seats
(not like her, when she'd sat on his lap) though not together. I was tired
after the sun, the traveling and exploring, and despite the noise, diesel
fumes and constant bumping, I slid into sleep. On our second bus Manuel
told me he wouldn't be taking the last one. He didn't live in the beach
town but in Poza Rica, the oil-town that lay inland. He would get
off there. "Senorita, I've told you all I know and observed. I
hope it's been of help to you... And I wish you luck finding your friend,"
he added, then lowered his eyes, as ifit seemed to me--he knew it
to be impossible now. I paid him, adding a generous tip.
I had another bus ride, more comfortable but much longer, to face the
next day. I tried not to think about it. There was the problem of what
the boy had said. If there was anything at all in what hed told
me I should be going to the police, asking questions. . . But hadn' t
I already made a fool of myself, believing the smallest things he'd said?
After all, I'd seen her in the city after her trip to Veracruz; it wasn't
as if she'd never returned... "La selva lo rodea todo," theres
jungle on all sides. No one would know where to find her." I closed
my eyes, shook my head. I'd been paying him to give me stories.
I ate in the hotel restaurant despite the higher prices and less authentic
cuisine, showered and went to bed. I don't remember having dreamed anything.
* * *
I spoke with her portera; no, la guera had not returned
to her apartment ("I've been watching, he sido muy vigilante,"
she told me, and I knew to believe her). I made my way to Cafe Gaby's,
sat again in the dimly-lit room. I watched the other customers, half-expecting
a ghostly face to appear, peering in at the window. I still had her notebook
and every so often I lifted the cover to stare at its scrawled pages,
as if its contents weren't already etched into me, actuarial notations
and all. In a few moments I would use the phone across the street to call
her husband, confess how fruitless the trip had been. I sipped my cafe
expreso, lit a Delicado (I'd gone back to smoking them).
Whatever thread I'd been following was worn thin now. I'd let myself
get off track, following scents and listening to stories. At the same
time, I'd felt closer to her in Veracruz--I'd felt her presence in the
hotel room, on the beach and in the plaza. I knew that their weekend together
in Veracruz--the ocean, the sun, their fevered love-making--had been their
last one. Hadn't she told me he wouldn't spend the night with her on their
return, choosing his own room on the other side of the centro instead.
In the morning she went to find him. The portera insisted he was
gone, but she thought she saw him standing behind the curtained windows
of his apartment. He was avoiding her. Hours later she would try again.
And again. And then the blue curtains disappeared--the ones she'd given
him to drape his windows with--white lace in their place. But no one would
tell her where hed gone, what had happened to him.
The talk of the other customers buzzed around me, occasional laughter
and some spirited shouting. The old man selling lottery tickets made his
way between chairs, stopping to rest at each table, "La suerte,
la suerte, try your luck," he said. I bought two tickets, "Gracias,
guerita," he said.
"Te acuerdas de la otra guerita?" I heard a voice somewhere
behind me--low, hushed, "Remember the other light-skinned girl who used
to come here? Pobrecita. I saw her the other day over by Plaza
Neza, so skinny, skinny and white as paste ... her clothes like rags and
her eyes... just empty pools--they didn't seem capable of recognizing
me, or anyone... I tried to give her something, but she wouldn't take
it from meTu crees? Can you believe it?"
My skin prickled and I suddenly started coughing, a cough that wracked
me. I wiped my eyes and turned to ask the two women, "Was it her? Are
you sure? Where is she?" But no one sat at the table behind me.
Somehow, so quickly, they'd made their way out of the cafe. I gathered
my things, left some pesos on the table.
I walked quickly, my heart like a small fish, jerking and leaping inside
me. It was a long way to Plaza Neza--would she be there as they'd said?
I searched the faces of people who jostled past me, but they gave away
nothing. I scanned each street I came to, the side streets and alleys,
the intersections I had to stand at to wait for traffic to pass. I took
in whole streets at a time, as if in one glance I could canvass every
single face to find the one I wanted. Avenida Juarez. Bucareli. General
Prim. Faces swirled past me. I walked faster.
On certain days she must have caught a glimpse of him--how else could
she go on believing? She must have thought she'd seen him--his uncombed
hair, the tail of his red shirt flapping after him--only to rush after
this image and find that her mind had played tricks on her again. Streets
she'd once walked with him, streets where she'd often found him, seemed
to be holding back from her now, as if they knew something but would never
reveal it. Balderas. Ayuntamiento. Cinco de Mayo. La Calle Uruguay. The
city seemed an endless labyrinth, an impossible maze of streets. There
must be someone to ask: Isn't this the way to Plaza Neza? For a second
it seemed there was no one. On the opposite side of the street was a bakery;
I made my way over.
When the car brushed my thigh, its driver screaming, What the hell do
you think you're doing, Don't you have eyes? What are they for then?,
it took me some moments to realize she might have been hit, might have
been hurt. I knew that as she walked she told herself she didn't care;
didn't care at all what happened to her. She walked with no thought to
where she was going, she walked because it seemed the only thing she knew
how to do; she walked and walked as if her feet slapping the cracked uneven
pavement were her only answer.
But her leg pained her. Was it broken or only bruised? What did it matter,
except that walking had become too painful. And walking had been her refuge.
She rested on the sloping steps of a stone building, leaned against the
wood door and closed her eyes. The sound of traffic, of so many feet and
voices scurried past her, like mice tracing escape routes. She felt herself
sinking deeper into darkness.
It was still dark when she woke. She was cold, but not enough to numb
the throbbing in her leg. She saw that she was lying in the corner of
a large and empty room. A shawl had been wrapped around her; a bolillo,
a bread roll, set beside her. Her cheek touched the cold of the stone
floor; she wrapped herself tighter. A bird flapped its wings and resettled
itself in the darkness. From the vaulted ceiling she thought she could
hear his laughter.
Top of page