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 them?"

"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 would.

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 she’d 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 for–un 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..."

"I did?"

"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 he’d 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 was selling.

"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. I’m 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 and deep.

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 him.

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 anything.

"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 in it.

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, overly cautious...

"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 grow near.

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 my eyes.

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 llevo…), 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 his services.

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, forgotten romance…

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…Me equivoque… 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 there."

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."

Manuel grinned.

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 to yield.

"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 him."

"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 mean anything."

"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 if–it 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 he’d 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," there’s 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 he’d 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 me–Tu 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.


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