|Art by Rise Mezo|
The sun was barely up, but already Lydia felt soggy from the heat. The sheets twisted and clung to her naked body. Between her breasts ran little streams of perspiration, spilling from the pool in the hollow of her neck.
Even the white tile floor in the bathroom was sweating. Lydia’s bare feet slid through the damp on her way to the toilet. She saw a lizard on the wall, but it was just a shadow that didn’t move when she sat down.
She came on this trip looking for distance, clarity to replace the gloomy, indistinct situation at home. She came to the end of Mexico, land of sunshine and heat and children. There were children in the markets, in boxes and wagons and as decoration. Her married lover at home had children, four blond stairstep versions of him. She met his children and saw Tom at 5, at 8, at 11, at 14 years old. She knew too much.
So she took a personal leave, packed a small bag and flew to the Yucatán. She spoke a little Spanish. She had never seen the jungle. She was 44 years old, never married, no longer a timid woman. She was strong and tan from swimming every day at the Rose Bowl. Tom called her Rose, told her she was a rose floating in his life. For her, he was a dark breeze, the momentary heaviness just before it rained.
As she flushed, she smelled the sour odor of her pee, the result of too much tequila the night before. The woman bartender had tomato-red lips stretched wide. She touched Lydia’s long desert-colored hair with hands that smelled of lime.
“Eeet’s like nothing, your hair,” she said, her accent reminding Lydia of an old cartoon mouse in a sombrero. “There eees nothing there.”
“I swim too much.”
“I know,” the bartender said, “look at your arms.”
Lydia’s arms were lean and muscular, the curve of her biceps deeply shadowed in the bar’s dim light.
Later, after more tequila in the squat glass, the bartender wanted to kiss her; she patted Lydia’s hand, stroked her long fingers with their blunt pale nails. “It eees nothing,” she said, “for women, it ees nothing.”
Lydia stumbled back to the hotel, its white stucco and painted tiles, turquoise shutters and ceiling fans. When she first arrived it had seemed picturesque. Now it was simply empty.
The toilet made a growling sound. The water ran lukewarm from the tap in fits, hesitating before falling into the chipped porcelain sink. There was no cold water. The ice machine down the hall held only a dirty puddle and two drowned cockroaches.
She would not think of Tom. She would not go back to bed and pretend he was with her, pretend his smooth body was against hers on the well-used mattress, pretend his blond hairs were curling in her teeth. She would not remember how she loved the dark odor of his balls. She would not let her hand move between her legs and pretend it was him, or send the shuddering conclusion across 2,000 miles to him, as he drove car pool, sat in his office, had dinner with his family.
He had been glad she was going.
“You are so brave,” he said.
The ocean was warm, clear, aquamarine. The snorkeling “world class.” She was bored, but she did it, she took the tour bus down to the wharf, listened to the guide tell about the reefs, the sea life, the lurking dangers.
There was a honeymoon couple in her group. They had been with her yesterday and the day before. Today two men, one older than the other, joined the bus. The older man was swarthy, handsome, with long dark hair in a ponytail and a hairy graying chest. The younger man was dark too, but his chest was hairless. They turned matching gray eyes to her and smiled at the same time, in the same way. Father and son, she realized.
She lay on the deck of the boat and listened to them in the water, laughing, talking. She was liquid in the heat. The sun was so close. She opened her palms to catch it, but closed her eyes against its brightness.
The father woke her, dripping on her, throwing his shadow across her face.
“You don’t burn,” he said.
“No.” She couldn’t see his expression, only his silhouette.
“I’m in the sun a lot.”
“I can see that.” ã
She sat up, stretched her arms above her head and shook out her long hair. She was not unaware of the effect she could still sometimes have.
“Where are you from?”
“Los Angeles,” she said. “You?”
“New York, Connecticut.”
She nodded, not surprised.
“Where are you staying?” he asked, looking at his son as he spoke.
“And is it peaceful?”
He laughed. She laughed with him, as if she had made a joke.
“Have dinner with us tonight.”
“We’ll pick you up at seven.”
She was attracted to the father, though she felt the younger man’s eyes on her.
She got off the bus in the center of town, waving goodbye to the men and the guide and the overweight bus driver. The new bride didn’t look at her.
Five o’clock and the plaza was still baking. She crossed to the only dress shop, a thatched-hut tourist trap. She had brought nothing with her that was pretty or soft, nothing to remind her of what she had worn for Tom.
She entered the store’s inviting shadow and stood for a moment, inhaling the smell of coconut and patchouli. The tropical prints were soothing, appropriate. She touched the cool fabrics gratefully, held them against her flushed cheeks. She selected a short dress in watery hues, a river of color to bring out her blue eyes.
At ten to seven she stood in the lobby. She had no shoes with her except old sneakers and rubber sandals. Flip-flops. She wore the flip-flops, and when she looked down she saw her mother’s feet propped up on the orange Naugahyde in front of Days of Our Lives.
When the son wants to sleep with me, Lydia thought, I will.
They looked nice in their clean white shirts. The son wore shorts and his legs were smooth and olive-colored. They smiled at her, identical again for just a moment, and nodded, appreciating the new dress, the trouble she had gone to.
“I’m starved,” the dad said.
“Me too.” It was the first time she’d heard the son speak.
As they walked the dirt road, they introduced themselves. The father, David, sang a song about her name, “Lydia, Lydia, Encyclopedia.” It wasn’t the first time she had heard it.
Ethan, the son, shook his head, embarrassed by his father, and jealous too.
They had dinner in the cantina. The same bartender waited on them.
“Eeesn’t she beautiful?” she said. “So strong, like a man.”
After dinner, David and Ethan drank a toast to Lydia. The bartender joined in. Her lips were purple this evening, stained as if she’d been eating blueberry pie. She bent over and kissed Lydia’s neck, leaving a purple smudge like a bruise.
“Did you come for the snorkeling?” Lydia asked.
“We came for you,” David laughed. “Come on, Lydia. Time to go.”
A dark-skinned Mexican man had come into the bar and stood at the door, leaning against the doorjamb. As David and Ethan stood up, the man left. Father, son and Lydia followed him out. The nighttime heat was unexpected. Lydia felt a mustache of sweat bristle on her upper lip, a trickle under one arm.
The man got into a battered beige sedan, four doors, four tires, not much more. David, then Lydia, then Ethan, all got in the back. They left the little town and turned inland, away from the beach. The car bumped and jumped over ruts in the dirt road. “Where are we going?” Lydia asked.
David didn’t answer. Lydia turned and looked at Ethan. His gray eyes stared straight ahead, then he looked down at her and smiled. It was such a normal smile, the boy-in-high-school smile, Lydia felt relieved.
“What do you do?” she asked him. “At home, I mean, in Connecticut.”
“New York,” Ethan corrected her.
“My son’s a bum,” David said. “He says he works in film, but he doesn’t really work at all. Do you?”
He reached behind Lydia and gave Ethan a slap on the head, affectionate but hard. Lydia winced. “What do you do in film?”
“I’m a grip.”
“I told you,” his father interrupted. “It’s nothing.”
The car lurched over a tremendous pothole. They made an abrupt right turn. Lydia held on to the back of the front seat. A sudden stop and the driver slammed his fist against the steering wheel.
“Fuck,” he said in perfect English.
He shifted hard into reverse, the tires spun, rubber against squealing vegetation, until they caught the dust of the road and fishtailed off in another direction. Another stop. Another turn. And finally a hut, dim yellow light in the glassless windows.
“Where are we?”
No one answered.
The driver and David got out.
“Wait here,” he said to Lydia, leaning toward her. His face was blank, a black shape with a garlic smell. She could see only the metallic glitter of sweat on one temple.
“Is this where we’re going?”
“How long have you lived in Los Angeles?” he asked.
“I grew up there,” she said.
David kissed her. She kissed him back, opened her mouth and tasted him, the spicy dinner and the tequila.
He jogged after the Mexican man into the shack. She heard the insects, the clatter of the flat succulent leaves. She lifted her hair off her neck, felt the new dress against her back, pulled her sticky thighs from the dirty vinyl seat.
Ethan leaned his head back on the seat.
“What are we doing?” Lydia asked him.
She saw him realize that she was afraid. He frowned, dismissing her fear.
“My father wants to give you something.”
“He gave it to me once. We were here before, when I was young.”
She looked at his smooth baby face. “What is it?”
“I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s go in.”
“It’s okay. We need to find it. Then he’ll be happy. We’ll all be happy.”
They stepped through a ripped curtain. David, two men and the driver sat around an old kitchen table under the light of a kerosene lantern. Giant tropical moths fluttered around the lamp, sizzling when they were caught. The men were smoking a joint and looking at a topographical map of the jungle, khaki brown, green lines in waves that meant nothing to her.
David handed her the joint. She took a long toke, held the smoke in her chest, then exhaled slowly. She felt immediately high; the circle of men, of moths, of hot flickering light undulated around her. She smiled in surrender and handed the joint to Ethan.
And then David was pushing back from the table, his chair scraping up dust from the dirt floor.
“We’re outta’ here,” he said.
Obediently, Ethan started for the door. Lydia wanted to sit down with these Mexican men and look at their faces, their black eyes that absorbed the lantern’s light.
“Wait,” she said. She wanted a moment before what ever happened next.
“No time to lose.” David took her by the arm. “We can’t let it get too late.”
“Goodbye,” she said. “Adiós.”
The men didn’t look up.
The driver took his place behind the wheel, the three gringos took theirs in the back.
“Where are we going?” Lydia asked.
David shrugged. His legs were spread, his bluejean-covered thigh pressed against hers. Ethan’s arm crawled along the back of the seat, his fingers tangled in her hair, grazed her neck, then landed on her bare shoulder. David looked down at his son’s hand and grinned.
“Lydia, Lydia, Encyclopedia.”
Stoned, Lydia thought the headlights on the old car were faltering, in need of juice. Outside the car windows, she saw animals, faces. An Aztec shaman in jaguar skin ran with them, his tongue dripping with the blood of virgins. But the heat didn’t bother her. She wondered about the driver, if he had a family, what he thought of her.
The road was suddenly worse. They were knocked and jolted against each other.
“Whoa,” said Ethan.
Lydia wanted him to kiss her, now, in front of his father. The first time Tom had kissed her she had to hold on to something to keep standing. Her knees had wobbled, almost given way, a cliché come true. He was blond and sunny, except for her. She was his foray into dim corners, badly lit secrets.
“You are so brave,” he said to her when she told him she didn’t want him to leave his wife or children.
“Once a month is enough for me,” she said. “An occasional afternoon. Just knowing it will happen sometime.”
He loved that she was courageous. He was terrified of losing his wife, his money, his hair.
The road dead-ended. The driver stopped the car, left the headlights shining into the jungle.
“Hey, hey, okay,” David said. “This is it.” He slapped the driver on the back. “Bueno. Muy bueno.” He turned to Lydia, “Vamos a dar un paseo.”
Lydia laughed, thinking of her room at the Hotel Pacífico.
David got out of the car. She watched him hurry down the path made by the headlights. The driver leaned back against the seat, closed his eyes. Lydia looked at Ethan.
“This is important to him,” Ethan said. “It’s a gift. For you.”
Lydia thought of all the gifts she had received. Presents in paper and ribbon, under Christmas trees and in Easter baskets, sitting on the dining-room table beside her lopsided birthday cakes. Small packages from boyfriends and jewelry stores, their faces of hopeful anticipation as she unwrapped and opened and exclaimed.
Tom tried to buy her things, to make up for the places he wouldn’t take her because he was afraid they would be seen. He never understood that she wanted nothing from him, nothing he could give her in a box.
“My father likes to share,” Ethan said.
She took his hand so he could help her out of the car. She felt the thick growth twisting, tickling around her feet. She knew her rubber thongs were not much protection. If she had to run, her feet would be bare.
“Wait,” she said again, this time to Ethan. He stopped.
She leaned against him holding his hand. He took his other hand and put it on her breast. He didn’t move it, just rested it there. The thin rayon dress betrayed her.
Either, she had thought earlier in the afternoon, ages ago in the sunlight, either of them. Now she wondered would it be both at once or would one want to watch. Would she protest, and what against.
“Where are you kids?” David called from the dark distance. The headlights of the car barely lit his legs and white bright sneakers.
“Here we come,” answered Ethan.
He led her down a possible path, a tiny trail made by a snake that slithered along and flattened the vegetation. The plants continued on either side and then, suddenly, the jungle opened. The trees gave way, the dense growth was only as high as her knees. They were in a clearing, a meadow if there were meadows in the jungle. The weak car headlights scattered across the waving grasses.
“Turn off the lights,” David shouted. “Apaga la luz!”
The lights switched off. Lydia peered back the way she had come, trying to see the beaten beige sedan. A tear stung one eye. She had never been so invisible.
“Lydia.” It was David’s voice, close in her ear, soft and gentle. “Baby, you’re looking the wrong way.”
She turned around.
In front of her was a field, but a field filled with hundreds, thousands of floating lights. Little lights that flickered against the night.
“What is it?”
“Don’t you know?” Ethan asked.
“She’s from L.A.,” David answered joyfully. “She’s never seen them.” He stood beside her. “Fireflies,” he said. “They’re fireflies.”
He spread his arms wide. Ethan reached out with his. They watched her.
For the second time in her life, her knees buckled. She reached for Ethan, but missed him and sank.
“Yes,” said David. “This is something.”
Ethan squatted beside her. He took her hand, put his closed fist in it, then opened his fingers. Her skin glowed green beneath a single firefly. She felt the tiny legs crawl across her palm, telling her fortune in a flash. Then it flew off, shimmering, and disappeared among the rest.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novel Skin Deep. Her new novel, Spontaneous, will be published next fall by St. Martin’s Press/L.A. Weekly Books. She lives in Echo Park.