This story is by Marie Sanchez-Nelson and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Under relentlessly sunny skies, I turn at the bronze seagull sculptures into the Fiesta Mexicana, which if you don’t know, is the best resort in Puerto Vallarta. Noel is already at a table as a waiter brings two coffees and sets them beside our book. Noel stands to hug me even though I’m half sure I smell. All day long, two words kept spinning in my head like twin propellers. But we sit down, and Noel speaks, and the noise in my head dies down. “Tomorrow you’re promoted to waiter from dishwasher.” I sip hot coffee even though it’s late afternoon. “I’m only giving you what was given me, Tomas,” he adds.
To get well, not good, I finish silently for him. “Thank you,” I say, trying to keep my voice calm. Beyond the pool, the ocean wears an elegant turquoise, though sometimes she shows up in white ruffles. Suddenly it hits me how she and Noel are alot alike—sometimes they steady me and other times make me want to cry.
From a nearby table, Dr Davalos stands and walks our way, with that awkward gait of his. I duck my head and stir a lot of sugar in the coffee but my leg involuntarily kicks at the table pedestal. My former assistant passes so close I can small his aftershave—lime. “Hello Tomas. How are things?”
“Okay,” I answer, then jump up, saying, “Gotta go.” I peel off to the bathroom where I look into the mirror and practice smiling, politely like a waiter. It comes out a grimace. I know what you’re thinking: What an asshole. But what was I going to answer Davalos? That my wife kicked me out? That I have one plate and spork and my air mattress deflates every morning at four? That I use my garbage can for a desk? You really think I’d answer him that?
After I sit back down, a rogue wave crashes against the seawall and Noel and I watch the ocean settle back into its normal swells. “So how’s Marco?” Noel’s question cuts through the pounding surf-y noise in my head.
“Only person I know worse off than me. And that makes me feel better. So that makes me pretty sick, eh?” I’m kind of joking and Noel laughs. That makes me feel good.
“And how was the dump?” I nod. He hooked me up to help the children who live there, every week. Yesterday, two boys, about five or six, were clowning around with an old broomstick like it was a pony or something. They traced circles on the hard-packed dirt while I stuffed two pencils and ten sheets of paper into plastic bags. But I kept watching them the whole time. They got me to thinking about my daughter Diana, when she was their age, and how she was never so easy to please. Not by a long shot.
Those boys couldn’t have been happier, like the broomstick was a real horse and their excitement over the food being unloaded from the van as good as a feast. Later, I watched them eat the food and they kept their same kind of happy and carried their school bags home like they were real presents. Next year, we want to give them primers. Noel opens our book—Meditations of St Francis of Assisi—and starts reading aloud.
For one split second I think, WTF. I got the PhD. But the rage dies down quickly and I press my lips together to listen. Noel’s a good reader but sometime later it sounds like blah blah blah and my head gets heavy. His cell phone rings and my head jerks. Noel finishes reading: “It is by giving that we receive …” Then he issues commands into the phone while the sentence just continues to baffle me.
Noel stands and says, “I need to go. You eat here today.” He signals a waiter and orders me lunch and leaves a tip even though Noel owns the restaurant, and lays a hand on my shoulder. “Keep doing what you’re doing. She’ll come around.” I think of Noel’s sister, my ex wife who hasn’t spoken to me in two years, and wonder when she’ll come around.
I sit looking at the ocean, not-thinking, and remorse engulfs me like a wave. It’s beyond imagining that I used to steal from Noel, and this resort. I’ve offered to pick up trash or wash dishes for free. But Noel insists on “paying a man what he’s worth.” I guess he forgives me. The waiter brings my plate and I close my eyes, feeling my hunger.
I smell the plate as I rotate it, and I smell shrimp, and I smell chicken and ribs. I can almost smell the two women I’ve made so sad, my daughter who smells of peaches and her mother who smells like lilac. Then I smell the dump and the oily scent of those two words, traits and states and I eat. Halfway through I remember to use the utensils.
I step on the boardwalk as the first stars glint over the sea. It’s purple twilight, when the legends say ghosts awaken. I don’t believe in ghosts, per se, but am familiar with ugly, haunting memories, and images. The turtle sanctuary is where you can best feel the ghosts, say legend. I sit nearby, where the surf meets sand. The sand feels warm and soft under my hand. A wave comes in, cold and strong on my legs, lingers and recedes.
And then the ghosts pass by one by one: The car crash that left both me and Noel mangled. The multiple surgeries. Pain meds. When we’d used up all the prescriptions we had coming, Noel went to rehab. I hit the streets. I press my hand firmly on warm sand, trying to feel ghostly thumps, a sign that what happens after this hole I’ve dug myself into, maybe deeper than a grave, is maybe it’s new life. I hope it’s not just sand and ashes, shards of glass and rust. I’m not homeless now. I earn money. I have friends. Is this it?
Noel, and some others, have climbed all the way out. Why not me?
Though I strain to listen, I get no answer.
Walking fast to dry my pants, I see Marco up ahead. Half of me wants to kick a rock across the street to the shops, get lost in the crowd. But I make myself step right in front of him. “Hey Marco. S’up?”
His eyes widen with surprise. “Man, I was wiggin’ out. And here is … you.” He lifts his hands as if he conjured me up.
I pat his shoulder, as Noel does mine, and scrounge in my pocket for pesos. “Let’s get coffee.” I point to the OXXO convenience store. Marco takes my coins, tinkles them in his pocket. A soft whistle escaped his lips before the store swallows him up.
We smoke on the seawall in the warm night. He blows on his coffee and sips, inhales from his cigarette and blows. I do, too. We light another cigarette apiece. The artists light up their sand sculptures for tips. The flying dancers lower themselves slowly from a very tall pole onto the sand, upside-down via a rope knot clamped in their teeth.
Marco and I watch people but I’m looking at women longer than I should. So I turn to the families that tread the cobblestone streets that end on the boardwalk. A little girl wears tennis shoes, the heels light up with each step, kind of like Christmas. My Diana had wanted Nike’s so badly our last Christmas together, and when I forgot, she cried. I got angry at her greed; her milky complexion splotched with red. Her mother started yelling back at me. Suddenly I’m on my feet, pacing in front of Marco.
He seems okay, so I slap his shoulder. “Later, man. Gotta bounce.” Marco salutes me and smiles, showing terrible teeth.
Back in my room, I turn the garbage can upside down, slide yellow papers from a tan envelope and smooth them out on the can’s flat metal bottom. These papers where I write down the puzzle pieces that drop into my head, from my old life. I write, traits and states; flip back to neurons; flip over to the first ever word, Neuropsychology, my old field. I rub my fingers over the letters. But something’s eating at me and soon I’m in the moonlight again, walking fast, like I used to.
I’m walking, even though I haven’t decided, and I think I know where. I turn down a few streets, make some turns, and shiver. It’s so close—this section of town that’s not for tourists. This place I’ve craved.
Here I am again, breathing in the smells, of rotting garbage and dog shit. I stroll from corner to corner, taking in the street hustlers, the drunks the nodding-off addicts. I pass peep shows and porn shops, then stand perfectly still sensing the sleaze, sex and perversion clinging to the air. I have loved how it gets in the eyes, the hair, the skin. Marco would love it, too. Tonight I feel love mingled with revulsion. Actually a little more revulsion. That relieves me.
I turn to leave when she comes strolling out of a mom and pop store, hits me like a rogue wave. An orange soda pop bottle smears her lips. Something about her milky skin reminds me of lost treasure. I stare. Skinny legs, narrow hips. Maybe twelve years old. I don’t want to spook her, but I can’t stop staring. Then I feel the them, the ghostly tremors. I feel them as a fat man approaches her. She reminds me of Diana, only older.
She laughs at something he says, pats the lapel of his tight suit. In a rage, I picture blood on his suit; images of carnage and butchery parade in my head. Slowly, she turns and saunters off, alone.
I rush inside the store and pull out my money, which isn’t much, and throw it on the counter. I tell the owner to use it when she comes back. Outside, an image of Diana’s pale prepubescence lingers.
I bolt out of the district, looking for a dog to kick. My phone rings incessantly and I pick up, wanting to scream. It’s Marco. He sounds terrible. “Hey, I’m hurtin. I wanna do something…bad. I need a fix.”
I breathe into the phone and parrot Noel. “Where are you? I’m coming.”
I call Marcos’ mama. “Bring him over,” she says. “I got stew.” His family will want him there tonight. I’ll offer him my room.
Either way, we’ll talk, Marco and me, probably all night. I’ll get honest finally, tell Marco about my bottom, my hole. I’ll tell my story to help Marco. Inconsolable Diana. The Christmas booze and drugs that made me raise my fists against her mother. Noel, who came just before the police. When I reach Marco, we turn toward his mother’s, my arm around his shoulder to steady him.
Under clear starlight, another puzzle piece drops, the biggest yet, and I’m saying it to Marco’s astonished face. “Traits don’t change. States of mind do.”
We detour to my room to get St Francis to read aloud and as we climb the murky stairs, my cell phone rings and Noel says his sister and Diana will meet me tomorrow for lunch, if I’m willing. And I’m so so willing. I squeeze Marco against my chest in the cramp of the stairwell, smell his stale sweat, and suddenly we’re crying, uttering hoarse unlovely sobs, arms around each other till it’s done. And I’m happy, like the boys at the dump, and something tears from my chest and hurtles toward a placid sea like a bright folded bird escaped from its dark envelope.