A Trip to Zihuatanejo
Annie Golden fought back the tears as she read the description of the hotel. She looked up and dabbed her eyes with an already damp Kleenex. Across the café, a young man leaning against the wall was staring at her. Puzzled, Annie dropped her gaze.
A saltwater pool overlooking the beach
, she read. The young man had probably mistaken her for someone else.
One of her students, Annie decided then, and looked back up to make sure. He had on a pressed blue oxford shirt with khaki pants and his hair was light brown, short and combed back. Most of the painting students in Annie’s classes wore ripped tee shirts and stained black pants, and dyed their hair pink or raging royal blue.
Annie went back to her reading and considered whether to stay someplace else.
“Is this chair free?”
A loose strand of hair partially hid the young man’s right eye. Annie turned toward the empty seat.
“Uh, yes, it looks free.”
At this late hour it was surprising that the tables had all been taken. Glancing around, Annie noticed an empty table next to the window and one in back.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
Before Annie answered the young stranger’s question, he sat down.
“No. I don’t mind.”
He scraped the bottom of his cup against its saucer.
“Planning a trip to Mexico?”
“Yes,” she said, then turned her attention back to the book.
As soon as she looked down her face warmed. In a heartbeat, her cheeks and forehead would be glowing red. She hated when the hot flashes came on in public.
“I’ve never been to Mexico,” he said.
The heat pooled at the back of her neck. She waited for it to subside.
“I’m thinking about taking a trip now that I have some free time.”
She looked up. The hot flash was over and she’d started to shiver. If she had a son, he would be this age.
“How long are you planning to go for?”
“I’m not sure.”
The young man studied Annie’s face. When was the last time a man had looked at her like that?
“I hope I’m not bothering you.”
He leaned into the table.
Annie patted the short, bleached blond spikes at the top of her head, then tugged on a long purple earring dangling from her right lobe.
“No. You’re not bothering me,” she said.
She took a sip of her cappuccino. The milk had grown cold, the coffee bitter.
“I’m an architect,” he said to her now. He cleared his throat. “I mean, I used to be an architect. I’m unemployed.”
“I’m sorry. So many people are out of work these days.”
“Don’t be sorry. I didn’t lose my job. I quit. Couldn’t stand it anymore. One day I just walked out.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Last week,” he said.
“Oh, just recently.”
He leaned into the table again.
“Let me ask you,” he said, his voice hardly above a whisper. “Is anyone going to Mexico with you?”
Annie suddenly felt as if this young man had just slid his fingers down and was stroking her from inside. She reminded herself to breathe. Otherwise, she’d have another hot flash.
“No, I’m going alone. I’m going to paint.”
He looked at Annie while she painted his portrait in her mind. She’d make the cheekbones high, the right eye a bit bluer and wider than the left. The face shaped like a heart.
“What would you say to a traveling companion?”
Annie sat quietly for a moment, wanting to make sure she had heard him right. Instead of answering, she decided to pose her own question.
“Is there someone you would suggest?” she asked.
When he didn’t respond, Annie leaned forward as he had. “Let me ask you something,” she said, lowering her voice. “Why would you want to go to Mexico with a woman you don’t know? An old woman, at that.”
“Why? Why not?”
“It just seems ridiculous, that’s all. I’m old enough to be your mother. Seriously, the only reason our conversation has gone this far is because I’m not anyone’s mother.”
“You don’t have kids?”
“No,” she said, turning away. “No kids.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve upset you,” he said.
“I’m not upset.”
This time when Annie flushed, she didn’t care. If he asked, she would gladly tell him why. She would describe what happens when a woman ages and dries up inside. She would tell him how she wakes up at night, sweating and trembling. She would let him know how it feels to have her heart pounding in her throat, as she listens to the wind moan and the cracking of the old house settling down into its foundation.
“What if I said yes?” she asked, after several minutes of silence.
He stared at her, as if waiting for the words to reach him, like a reporter on the scene of an accident. Then he leaned his head back and laughed.
“Do you mean it?”
“I’m not sure.”
Annie slid the Mexican travel guide across the table and pointed to a picture of a small yellow and turquoise hotel.
“What do you think?”
“I think we should start packing.”
“You know, we don’t even know each other’s names.”
His fingers brushed her hand.
“I’m Alex Mott.”
“I’m Annie Golden. Is Alex short for Alexander?”
“Yes. I hated it when I was a kid but lately I’ve thought about asking people to call me Alexander.”
“I’ll call you Alexander. In Mexico, you’ll be Alejandro. I once had an affair with a man named Alejandro.”
“What happened to this Alejandro?”
“He was married.”
Annie looked away.
She used her napkin to dab at the table, though there didn’t appear to be any liquid there or crumbs to clean up. “Look, if we’re going to do this, we have to make plans. I’d like to leave in the next few weeks.”
Alex got up to get another latté and brought a steaming cappuccino back for Annie.
Annie asked, “Don’t you think we should get to know each other a little, instead of traveling to Mexico as strangers?”
Alex nodded yes.
* * *
By the time Annie lifted her wrist and looked at her watch, hers and Alex’s coffee cups had long since been drained. The white porcelain was stained brown on the sides and bottom.
All Annie told Alex about Zihuatanejo was that she hadn’t been there for years. Alex said he loved to read and would bring books to keep himself occupied. As crazy as it seemed to go on a trip to a foreign country with a very young man she’d only just met, Annie thought it would be nice to travel with someone pleasant and not likely to get in her way.
They avoided the subject of sex. Alex agreed that they should rent two rooms. Annie repeated that two rooms sounded best.
It was past 2 o’clock when Alex and Annie stepped out of the café. Annie agreed to get them reservations on the least expensive flight and for two rooms at the Casa Juanita.
Alex leaned over to kiss Annie. Out of habit, Annie turned her head. The kiss brushed past and hung suspended between them in the air.
* * *
Annie tried breathing into the knot that had formed in her stomach the moment she dialed the airline. She tried breathing again. Without warning, she started to cry.
A faded image of Alejandro came up in her mind. He had on a white, wrinkled guayaberra, over jeans stained with yellow and red paint. His caramel-colored skin had darkened in the sun. His hands were folded on the table. The fingers of his right hand were weaving in and out of the left.
“Janet,” he said. “Janet’s pregnant.”
He studied his hands, which had fallen into a deadly stillness.
“We’re going to have a baby,” he explained.
Annie felt something twist inside her. Hadn’t Alejandro told her that he and his wife no longer made love?
“I can’t keep seeing you, Annie. Not if I’m going to be a father.”
Annie looked at Alejandro. She hated herself for still wanting him.
They were sitting at a table painted royal blue and edged with flowers. With her index finger, Annie traced the outline of a blood red hibiscus.
“Why did you bring me to Zihuatanejo? To tell me this?”
“I didn’t know what to do.”
He looked down at his hands, lying flat and still on the table.
“I know our relationship is more than an affair. That made me see that I had to make a choice. Between Janet and you.”
He looked up.
“If it wasn’t for the baby, I would choose you.
* * *
The sky in Portland was gray when the 747 lifted off the ground. As the plane turned toward the Mexican terminal, sunlight streamed in and warmed the window.
Annie looked across the wing of the plane. Sun glinted off the shiny metal, the light so pointed and bright, she was forced to look away.
She glanced at the vacant aisle seat next to her, then pulled out her passport, from a tight zipped compartment in her purse.
* * *
“Casa Juanita,” Annie said, after rolling her suitcase to a waiting cab.
– of course,” the driver said.
Annie shut the door and the taxi eased out into the traffic. A cumbia drifted from the speakers, as the driver tapped out the beat on the steering wheel. His fingers were the shade of walnut sauce.
Annie closed her eyes. As the taxi speeded up, the engine roar drowned out the song.
When she opened her eyes, they were sitting in front of a turquoise and yellow hotel. Colorful parrots were painted on both sides.
Annie handed the driver some folded pesos and told him to keep the change. As she opened the door, he smiled.
“How long will be you be staying in Zihuatanejo?”
“A month or so,” Annie said.
“Are you here alone?”
His fingers caressed the tip of his moustache. He had a strong nose and a nice smile. At the center of his chin was a dimple.
“Yes. My husband, Alexander, had to stay home. He’s an architect. He had too much work to do.”
“So what will you do here by yourself?”
“I’m an artist,” Annie said, stepping out of the cab. “I’ve come here to paint.”
She shut the car door.
– look,” the driver said, leaning across the front seat, his right arm resting on the open window. “If there’s anything you need, just tell them at the front desk to call me. Tell them to call Roberto. They know me here.”
Annie turned around and faced the hotel. She knew she wouldn’t ask anyone at the front desk to call Roberto. But at this stage in her life, it was still nice to have the chance.