“Be careful when you walk alone under a moonlit sky blanketed with stars…. The winds of the Orient may blow over you, making you feel as though you are blooming like a tree under the rain. She will be there: Xtabay, waiting for you, sure to attract you with her perfume and envelope you in the elixir of her aroma. She is like the flower that blooms at dawn, damp from the night’s weeping. And she, Xtabay, is much more than that.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I had stayed behind at the pool, grateful for the break from routine. We had been in the Caribbean for almost two weeks, and although four couples create enough interpersonal variety to make the time pass, it turned out that two weeks of constant conviviality was too much to expect.
The men had left for the golf course again, their false camaraderie unabated by the wet heat. The women had headed to town, shopping for onyx and silver trinkets. The pool sustained me, its blue-green-ness surrounding my limbs, pushing my pelvis up to the sun. The weight of the rays drove into and through me, enough to burn, not enough to sink me. By midafternoon, I again began to believe that I could tolerate a few more days of togetherness.
I was so enervated that, later, I joined the women in a cab to the golf club for the by-now-obligatory margarita and taco party on the patio overlooking the last hole. By the time we arrived, the three golfers were into their second or third beers; protocol required no margaritas until the group had fully assembled. While stories of the day’s hunt were told in raucous interjection, Paco moved among us with the large pale drinks, glasses rimmed in salt and sloshing in icy milkiness. Jorge delivered tacos midst gracias and mucho gracias; vacationers permitting waiters to enter into the passing intimacy of our tribe.
While generally more interested in the stories the women brought back from town, it was assumed that I would rather rehash the day of golfing. The tribal assumptions were strong, not worth resisting.
“And then after I teed off on three, this woman came out of the trees with a flower in her hair.”
All side-eddies of conversation gelled around Ernst’s remark. I feared that this interesting tid-bit would be swallowed in the meaningless flow of chatter, so I jumped on it.
“What do you mean, a woman? What did she look like? Old, young, did she speak English? Where did she come from? Did the caddy know her?”
Ernst turned to my wife with loud confidentiality. “I don’t know where she came from, but she headed right for your father, I’ll tell you that.”
I had been talked into a vacation with by in-laws in a moment of winter chill when the promise of a subsidized beach sojourn overpowered my judgment. What was that saying about repenting in leisure?
Dieter, my father-in-law, was a tall man, the kind of person who had presence. Not handsome, not thin, not muscular, rather his entire aspect was large and pleasant and open. The mystery woman might well have drifted into his orbit, as did so many new acquaintances.
“Yep,” my father-in-law confessed after a quick sip and a salt-induced wince. “She walked right up to me on the tee. She must have been thirty-five or forty, very tan, with this big red flower in her hair. Long black hair….”
“Well, was she pretty, or attractive or what?”
My question must have seemed too eager, or lacked the right touch, I do not know. Sometimes when I want to know something I lose control of the social niceties. My wife gave me a look, but the golfers missed it; they grew into the implicit bonding of the story, pleased I had expressed an interest.
“Well, she sort of looked like a left-over from the sixties, some flower child or something.” Larry was my brother-in-law, and putting the fine detail on things was not one of his attributes.
“Was she pretty or just dressed in golf clothes or what,” I pressed. The eyes at the table were beginning to wander, and two of the women, clearly less enthralled than I over this oddity, had broken off into a side conversation.
Dieter twisted his glass, testing to see if there was anything hiding among the ice cubes or whether it was time to order a refill. “She was actually sort of worn out, lots of lines. She was white—sort of, not real Mexican or anything, but sort of dark also; she looked like the sun had done a job on her. The hair was jet black, though. Couldn’t get rid of her. Wanted to ride in one of the carts, can you believe that?” He twisted around, on the hunt for a waiter.
“Did she want money? What did she say to you?” With that, my wife shot me a chilly glance, one that said “why are you so interested in this story, just what the hell are you doing?,” one that said “that’s your last question, you’re coming across weird here,” one that said, “my family doesn’t understand how obsessed you can get so just drop it.” Her eyes said all these things and more, and also suggested a price tag I wouldn’t want to pay if I persisted.
“No,” Ernst said, “she didn’t even speak English, only Spanish. The caddy, he was only a kid, he looked kind of nervous but said he was sure he had never seen her before.” Ernst knocked off his drink and said his last in a conversation-ending tone: “We just finally waved her off, sent her away. I went to get my driver and turned back and, well, she just was gone and that was that.”
And then we talked about tequila and salsa, sun tans and sunburns. We admired earrings, discussed chip shots and bogeys. We debated dinner as if it were the national debt, and whether the local taxi drivers were to be trusted. We discussed everything except what I wanted to know about, and then we climbed in our taxis and went back to the hotel and dressed for dinner.
The next day we had rented a mini-van to drive our tribe out to a distant beach for a day of snorkeling. I had drunk enough the prior evening to make credible my claimed stomach ache, and after small fussings everyone went off without me. At least Laura did not offer to stay behind and take care of her husband.
I waited a half-hour, then dressed and cabbed over to the golf club. I had always intended to learn some Spanish before the trip. I consider it rude to go to another’s country and expect the people to speak your foreign tongue, regardless of the circumstances. But it had been a few weeks from hell in the office, not even clear until the last minute that I even would be able to break free and take the trip. By the time I was able to open the Berlitz I was seated on the airplane, and my exhaustion allowed me only to scan the first pronunciation page before I fell asleep. And at the hotel and the shops and restaurants English had been no problem, and thus no incentive to learn even the Spanish rudiments. This made my next task much harder.
When I reached the club, the starter and the few caddies sitting under the straw canopy near the first hole either did not understand me or took some special pleasure in pretending to be confused. I could not blame them; if they came to my office in Boston and started asking curious questions in a strange foreign voice, I surely would have them summarily tossed out.
Wandering into the restaurant, I found only one lone waiter at this early hour. He was not familiar to me, not part of our false circle of family fun we had woven over the past several nights. “Is Paco around,” I asked. “Jorge?” I suggested. Shrugs, and an indecipherable spurt of Spanish staccato. I pointed to my watch, intending to ask for the time of their expected arrival, and shrugged myself; the waiter shrugged back.
Outside near the starter’s shack was a glass-covered map of the golf course— the first few holes lay in a near straight line running away from the club-house. The third tee looked like a good eight hundred yards away, half a mile perhaps. As I stood considering whether I could get away with just walking out onto the course and strolling up to the third tee, a familiar face reflected back at me from the glass.
“Hey, Jorge.” My enthused false tone echoed the drunken style of the tribe. I even gave him a soft, friendly slap on the shoulder. Could it be that he saw through me? Did I sense his body recoiling, if only an inch?
“Tito said you were looking for me, senor?” His voice was flat, not so much unfriendly as guarded.
“Yes, yes, actually I was.” We were standing in the sun in front of the clubhouse, and I didn’t want to have this conversation in so open a place. “Let’s go inside,” I invited, taking a few steps towards the door, and he fell in behind me. Speeding up, the suction of my momentum dragged him through the front door of the club in my wake.
I tried to order a margarita for each of us, but somehow it ended up that Jorge stood up, made me a drink and served it. This did not create the intimate environment I was trying to create. I asked him to sit with me at one of the low tables, making a sweeping sign with my arm, but still he held back, looking around perhaps for a supervisor or another patron, but it was still well before noon and we had the place to ourselves. Trapped, he sat, leaning forward in the soft chair lest anyone think that he was lounging like a guest.
“I want to talk to you about the woman on the golf course.”
After a moment he looked down, silently. During that moment, his eyes flared, quickly, instinctively.
“I am very interested in the woman who was on the third hole of the golf course yesterday.”
Nothing; I shifted to face him more frontally.
“I am very interested in the woman who was on the golf course. I am prepared to pay for this information.”
Still the same stare, same gentle shrug. Polite attention, no communication.
I leaned forward until Jorge was forced to blink; in for the proverbial penny, here comes the proverbial pound: “I am willing to pay much for this information.” Silence.
“Molto.” No, no wrong language. “Mucho. Mucho!”
Well, Jorge could stare, I’ll give you that. I stared my most intensely ingratiating but mildly intense stare, and he gave me back a big-brown-eyed-empty I-don’t-know-honest-senor-sir-por-favor kind of stare that told me he was a heck of a stare-er, and that I was on the wrong track.
“Well, do you think anyone in the kitchen might know about the woman on the golf course?” His eyes flicked towards the kitchen. “So there is someone in the kitchen who knows about the woman on the golf course?” Silence. Finally a shrug.
Then, flatly but politely: “Are we finished talking together, senor?” Well I thought, no actually we are not finished, I’m not finished, actually I am going to tie you to that fucking chair and beat you with self-righteous Yankee brutality until you bleed from the corners of your mouth and you cannot wait, just cannot wait to tell me anything and everything that I want to know about my lady of the golf course. Actually I want to hurt you badly for pretending not to understand me, I want to punish you for all the thoughts that I know in my heart you are thinking about me as we stare each other down, with you winning.
“Yes, sure we are done,” I said. “Thanks for your time,” I added, and immediately hated myself for adding that, dammit what a stupid habit that made me say that! Jorge, already arisen and turning, looked back over his shoulder and gave me a gentle smile.
I leave without paying for the drink, hoping he will follow me outside. No such luck Although I hate golf, and am suitably terrible to boot, I find myself renting clubs, shoes and a caddy. Yes, I am playing alone. No I do not wish to be paired with another golfer or group. Yes I understand there is an extra charge. No, it’s quite alright, I am one of those curious Americans, I guess, who prefers to play alone, thank you. After interminable trivia, I am free to tee off.
My caddy is twelve, or maybe fourteen. His name is Raymondo. His eyes are large, almond-shaped, deep brown, and leave no room on his face for any other noticeable features. I toy with the idea of walking directly to the third hole, explaining as I go that I have played the course before and that I prefer it that way, holes one and two are after all so damned boring. My guess is that this will create more trouble than it is worth. Better to play the first two holes.
This is something of a problem. My driving game, always weak and embarrassing, is at a new nadir. My tee shot off the first squirts ten yards to the left and nestles deep into the taller fringe grasses. When Raymondo appears seemingly to suggest that I replace it on my tee, I angrily wave away his offer. I also disdain his club selection, and attack the ball with my driver. Grass and earth fly in several directions. My ball squiggles out onto the fairway, no more than twenty yards away. Already four new golfers are mounting the tee area, and one or two are looking curiously at my position, which is improbable in the extreme given my tee time was six minutes ago.
I bend over and pick up my ball, and throw my club at Raymondo. He’s a kid, why bother to explain it to him anyway. Vamoose. Next hole.
The second hole is shorter and straighter. If this expedition is not to be a travesty, I must concentrate. I position the ball, address it, stare at its back edge, remember to keep my arms straight and swing up and through. The ball arcs slightly and Raymondo and I exhale in relief as it rolls cooperatively up the fairway. I am now desperate to be done with it, successfully done with it. I hit a wedge shot that actually lands where it is supposed to land. It rolls back towards the hole. In my real prior life, I never have hit such a shot. But now I really need it, need the shot, I am not playing for a score or for someone to say “hey, nice golf shot” – what the hell else are we playing, anyway? – I am playing for real, for keeps, for I don’t know what but I know it’s very very important.
Raymondo is looking at me with respect. Actually it is relief. I imagine he is thinking: perhaps this gringo will actually play a game of golf and pay me my twenty dollars and not go crazy on me, why do I always get the crazies, the starter has always had it in for me. I pull out the putter and without lining up the shot I sink a ten-footer. Raymondo smiles and reaches for the score card, but then he remembers the first hole and stops in confusion. I grab the card from his hand and stuff it into one of my shorts pockets. The score is not where my mind is focused. There is a sign in Spanish and English on which I have focused: “To the Third Tee.”
Raymondo leads the way, to show me. I am having none of it. I shoo him behind me. Glancing back, I do not see the next foursome. My quick clean escape from the second hole has bought me some time.
Through a small copse of trees, I come upon the third tee. It is about ten meters square, and elevated above the fairway which slopes away in front of me. It is ringed with trees, but the trees are not very thick. Quickly I scan around in an arc. I see no one, nothing unusual. To my distress, the trees are so thin that in most directions I see through them, to the sky beyond. No dense woods to wander or to hide.
Raymondo has taken a wooden driver from the bag and he has teed my ball. My back is to the hole, oblivious. I stare, and he waits. After a minute or so, he taps me respectfully on the sleeve, but I shrug off the gesture. The breeze is picking up, it is afternoon, there are now a few clouds on the horizon, the afternoon thunderstorms may arrive today. The winds stir the trees, but it is a tease, the shapes I see are different shapes. Minutes pass; Raymondo calls out “Senor?” I turn on him, and my face must scare him, for he drops the club and backs behind the golf bag.
I look behind me. That foursome is coming down the second fairway towards the green, I do not have much time. To relax Raymondo, I pick up the club, but again turn my back to the fairway. Slowly I walk a crescent around the tee, peering into the trees. They are now swaying in the breeze, and the breeze is becoming more insistent. Even the darkest patches now are spread against the sky by the growing gusts, but nowhere is there the woman, nowhere is my woman of the golf course. I am staring, I am staring, I am staring….
“Excuse me, fella, are you going to tee off or can we play through?” The voice is Southern US, too polite to betray annoyance. A perfectly reasonable voice with a perfectly reasonable question. I am startled.
“I’m sorry, but you’ve been looking into the trees of a couple of minutes. Mind if we play through?”
“No, no, not at all. I just got distracted. Please. Sorry.” I force a smile towards him, which earns me a nod.
I place my club politely on the grass at the rear of the tee, and as their voices behind me began the ritual banter I walk off the course toward the clubhouse. I stare straight ahead, and on the ground I fail to see a crushed red flower.
* * * * * * * * * *
I just made it back to the room ahead of the group. I brushed the grass and dirt off my clothes, hung everything up as I had remembered it, poured most of the juice from the decanter alongside my bed down the toilet, and mussed up the bedding and my hair as best I could. Even so, I earned a curious look from my wife, after she saw my flushed cheeks but could not detect any trace of a fever.
I rejoined the tribe for dinner, but cannot recall any of the conversation. I spoke only as necessary, given dispensation from joviality by reason of being under the weather. My wife’s disposition improved by reason of the attention I afforded her, and she did not guess my design as I kept her margarita glass full at cocktails and her wine glass well-stoked at dinner. As I sipped and sucked my way through the evening, the assembled hoard sopped up its usual bounty of alcohol, and my bride rode the crest of the wave. In our room, she fell promptly asleep, while allegedly waiting for me to emerge from the bathroom.
Still, I gave it lots of time. I lay down next to her so that her thrashes would encounter familiar resistance. At last, that deep and steady snore overtook her; I knew that she was out for a few hours, indeed more. I gently let myself out the door.
The taxi driver tried to tell me that golf club, and indeed the bar at the club, was long closed, but for once the ignorance of the language worked in my favor as I insisted to be driven there. On arrival, he reluctantly took my bills. He had tried, I was no longer his problem.
Rain showers had left the course drippy and redolent of greenness, but at least the sky had cleared enough for the half-moon to light my way. I walked straight down the first fairway, and over the green, straight down the second and over the hill to the third tee. I passed through the bower made by the laden branches, as wind dropped water on my shirt and hair in big cold splotches. My trouser bottoms stuck to my legs in clammy clumps.
I sat for a long time without expectation, the water soaking upwards into me. I understood implicitly that waiting was required. The winds cleared the air, and there was the smell of flowers. I closed my eyes and waited. My clothes pressed moistly all over me, and a constant sweat, a dew congealed on my arms and face. The winds then blew more constantly, but the perspiration remained, as if painted on by a broad brush. My hair matted to my skull, the wetness of the ground entering all parts of me.
When she walked out through the trees, I was not surprised. Nor was she surprised that I was there. I knew I was not the first to wait, nor the first to be taken. I did not think to ask if I would be the last. She was as described, her simple lined face left over from a gentler time. But that time had taught her peace, and she imparted it with each stroke of her hand through my soggy hair. She held the strands upwards, and her breath dried each piece into a wisp. Her hair was dark, her dress plain, the color of straw. She rubbed my neck, at the base of the skull where all the tensions connect. She touched my shoulders. She kissed my lips, gently and like a brushing, and there were flowers everywhere.
I am on a hillock overlooking the moonlit lushness. And where are the buried warriors who sat before me, kissed by this wind, at love in this myth? The guidebooks tell me that this Goddess of the Waters gave Cancun’s waves their name, gently azure and green lapping up onto the powdered sandstone beaches of this silly island.
Silver trinkets and woven blankets sold from steamy stalls, bars filled with short white skirts tight around the tans, Corona beer on the beach – these things cannot sate my lust. But I believe, I pray my Goddess can. Her face first is as Spanish as any textured line that Goya ever painted, and then spreads and darkens into stout Yucatan features guarding burning eyes of deepest brown. She sits. I hold her hand. She dances; I feel her skirt skim around my shoulders as she twirls. There are castanets; there are drums.
We make love in my mind, and her passion is an aroma on the wind. It fills all my chambers completely.
Beware the winds that carry the hint, the trace, the suggestion of the Orient. Can those winds blow this far, and come to rest upon my face? Is the Goddess of the Waters not a goddess at all, not a myth, just simply a woman of this place, of all times in this very place? Could it be that Mayan myth is not myth at all, and that Xtabay is as real as the stones, as true as the ruins, as provable as the astronomy?
* * * * * * * * *
I sat on the hill until false dawn showed over the distant sea. Some time before, she was gone. I walked half-way back to the hotel before a passing truck gave me a lift. I balled my clothes in a corner and lowered myself, cold and naked, into bed; Laura’s body nestled into mine for one chilled moment, then moved away. And I slept.
When she awoke, she was disconcerted by the crushed red flower, but I did not know how to explain.