This time Carmen’s late even by local standards. I’m waiting as the bar starts to fill up. We’re waiting for the nightclubs to open, women getting off housekeeping shifts at the hotels, leathery men who run the diving charters out past the reef, early retirees like me. Outside on the beach, local children sell beaded necklaces to passing tourists, twenty Belize dollars, no, fifteen. OK, for such a pretty lady, only ten. The tourists roll in and out, just like the storms. These days when I fish, I keep an eye on the horizon, but even after all these years, those dark clouds can rise up out of nowhere sending me full throttle back inside the reef.
A breeze sends unanchored bar napkins flying. Across from me, Duncan settles on his stool and removes a straw hat revealing a still white forehead. In the right light, I am looking across the bar at myself 15 years ago. We were all once tourists. We came down for a week that turned into a summer, which spread into years until we eventually forgot what we left behind. We were stockbrokers, men who bought and sold livestock, slighted wives who divorced well. We moved into bungalows on the north shore of the island or the older resorts like the Surfside where I have lived since 1999. We fry our own eggs in the mildewed kitchen and open cold Belikins behind the bar where we mark our own tabs with a grease pencil. The Surfside no longer attracts tourists since they built the new resorts by the airstrip. Jorge and Cita who own it sit with us in the restaurant’s sunken booths, playing cards or dominoes, watching people bump by on rented golf carts.
When I first arrived to Caye Ambergis, I lived on my 26-foot SeaRay. Staring across the black water where I moored, I would think of my wife back in San Francisco or wherever she was. Now those days seem hidden under the same kind of fog that hung over that city, heavy and cold, dampening every fiber of our cotton sheets.
Sometimes coming in from the marina with a bucket full of flopping grouper, I look at the Surfside like I used to look at my properties in San Francisco. My eyes run over the sagging gutters, the bare, salt-stripped wood, the rotting window frames. Three hundred twenty-five hours of manpower, assuming good weather, $250,000 USD for materials, a lot of work to be considered tourist class again.
Behind me I hear a woman speaking Spanish, but it’s not Carmen.
“Hey, Manuel,” I call to the bartender pushing three empty Belikin bottles in front of me clanking them together for him to pick up. “Where’s your Tia?”
Without looking up from wiping the bar he says, “You would know better than me, old man.”
He wouldn’t tell me where she was even if he knew. He doesn’t like me. None of them do, not when it comes to me with Carmen. They are loyal to her dead husband, but tonight that ends. Tonight, I tell her she has to choose between us.
Carmen and her family have lived in San Pedro their entire lives. A couple years ago, I started fishing with her. Not even the old fishermen know the reef better than she and her brother Jokin do. I feel things for Carmen, and I know she feels something for me, but every time I have wanted to ask her to move out of the Surfside and into a real house with me, when I try to say it, my mouth dries out like it’s full of sand.
It’s this town that won’t let me have her.
I knew her story and her dead husband, Jose, before I ever met her. He is the ghost story that circulates through the beachside bars and the fishing charters, a cautionary tale to scuba divers and snorkelers.
The day he drowned, Jose was spear fishing at the bottom of the reef, a long rope connecting Jokin’s boat’s to his ankle. At two minutes, Jokin peered over the side and said, “Something’s wrong.” When he pulled up the rope, it only gave him a couple feet before it caught.
Under the surface, Jokin found his friend dead, his mouth a tunnel filled with sea water. A Moray eel waved like a medieval battle flag from the palm of his left hand, locked into Jose’s skin by the trap of its own spiked teeth. He still clutched his spear in his other hand. Jokin cut the rope away from the reef with his blade, sliced through the eel behind its head, and hooked his sister’s dead husband under the armpit in order to pull him to the surface.
For the decades since he died, the entire town of San Pedro has argued about it. Over domino games, sagging clotheslines heavy with wet laundry, and boiling pots of rice. Before the sun comes up on the water and over the blaring salsa music in Club Jaguar, they try to piece it together.
He was the best diver among them. He was drunk. Maybe sick. He could have done it on purpose. You didn’t know him. His line tangled in the reef. That’s all. Don’t you know anything about Morays? The blade killed him. The flash of his knife attracted the eel from its hole. But then why not just cut away the eel? Just cut the fucking rope. Twice that has happened to me. He could have sucked in water at the shock of the bite, he could have dropped the knife just out of reach. Exactly, it would be lost quickly, the ocean floor right there under the reef, that’s where the sand is fine as powder.
The story was told over and over, examined like an oyster in the palm, but it didn’t matter to me how the story was told, Jose’s lungs had filled with water. No matter how it had happened, he was dead.
This morning Carmen woke me up, her hair wet and wrapped in a towel like a turban, wearing nothing else. Carmen looks younger than 51. Nothing on her is sharp, but there is still the curve of a waist above her hips.
“You’ve got roaches crawling out of the bathroom drain,” she said unwinding the towel from her head, then rubbed her hair vigorously. “I hate those little pendejos.”
I reached under the bed for a bottle of Poland Spring. After all these years, I still haven’t converted to tap water. Most people who move here slowly wean themselves onto it to save the expense of bottled water. They suffer little by little the stomach cramping and diarrhea that can last for weeks from even a small amount of water. I never could bring myself to suffer through it, so I special order several cases a month from the grocery store down the road. At $30 USD a case, it’s my greatest luxury.
“And, Ito, you need to buy some more shampoo.” She only calls me Ito when no one else can hear. “What about that American kind you bought before? That was nice.”
She climbed back into bed next to me and put her fleshy feet on top of mine. Through the soap, I could still smell yesterday’s perfume and the smoke in her hair. I pulled her closer, my face in the pillow to block out the sun.
“My Ito is a dirty man. He lives with no A/C or fan,” she sang. “He has roaches in his tub and roaches in his shoes, and every morning he smells like last night’s booze.”
She laughed, pleased with herself.
“Come get on top of me,” I whispered.
She rolled away and sat at the edge of the bed. “Ah, no. You have plans.”
“I do?” I slid my arm down her back and then across her hip to a smooth thigh.
“You told Jokin you’d play in his domino tournament.” She looked at the pink leather watch I got her for Christmas last year, then back at me. “In fifteen minutes.”
Normally, we play dominoes at night after people are back from fishing or off work from the resorts. But Jokin had been planning this all-day tournament for weeks. It has taken a long time for me to earn a place at Jokin’s table, and I didn’t want to lose it.
Carmen pulled an orange sundress over her head.
“Don’t go,” I said as she strapped her feet into a pair of gold heels that looked too small, the straps tight across the tops of her tanned feet.
“Why are you so sad today?” She asked looking over her shoulder at me.
I lit a cigarette. She leaned over the bed and kissed me, her wet hair cool against my cheek.
“I have to pick up my paycheck. I’ll meet you later.” She opened the door letting the sound of a moped flying by fill the room. “Go play dominoes. You’ll feel better.”
I put on clean shorts and a Hawaiian shirt that Carmen said made me look Magnum PI. Her understanding of Americans was formed by television and the tourists at the dive shop where she worked the register. I tightened my belt and ran my fingers through my hair. Leaning toward the mirror, I realized I had finally crossed over, more gray than brown. At least I had held out longer than most.
In the dirt yard behind Edda’s Fish House, Jokin slammed his dominoes with a crack. The old, wood table had been polished smooth as mother of pearl with countless games.
I settled on a rickety plastic chair behind the players at the table. Jokin nodded at me and said, “We deal you in next game, old man.”
Jokin pulled his old Yankees cap down over his eyes, tapped the bill twice, signaling his partner. Rojo rubbed his forehead then slammed down the dominoes cradled in his palm. There are a million signals in the game that reveal the secret of your hand to your partner. How many times you slam the table, a series of taps of a domino against another, a wipe of the nose. It’s like Morse code, an easy game made complex by the set of signals reinvented with each partner change.
I leaned back in a folding chair and said, “Alright deal me in, but no Spanish.”
“Hasn’t Carmen taught you Spanish yet?” Rojo asked.
Everyone knows about Carmen and me, but it’s not discussed especially in front of her brother. Even though we have spent days on the water together, even though I paid for Jokin’s daughter’s emergency C-section and got his son a job in L.A, when it comes to family, Jokin will never let me be a part of his. I am better than a tourist, but I am not one of them.
“Did you fish this morning?” I asked Jokin trying to change the subject.
He didn’t respond.
This is how it has been for years. I have been glad just to be at their domino tables or pulling in nets of bait fish on their boats. But this morning sitting at Jokin’s tournament when he wouldn’t answer a simple question about what might be biting, I felt some decision rise up hot under the surface of my skin, so hot I could feel it through the thin fabric of the Hawaiian shirt.
“Hello, beautiful,” Manuel calls to an American girl entering the bar. He flips a dishtowel over his shoulder.
If I didn’t already know everyone who lives on the island, I could still spot an American miles away. The girl glances around the bar and cautiously pulls out the stool a few down from me. I look at her occasionally while flipping through a Belize City newspaper left on the bar. The girl reminds me of my wife a little bit, but most slight, blond women do. This girl’s hair is thick with curls and tied back with a leather string. My wife’s hair was straight. Something in this girl’s mouth or chin definitely reminds me of Lada.
I look at the clock on the wall and see Carmen is now two hours late. She is probably drinking somewhere else, maybe at Club Jaguar where her son Diego is a bouncer. When the girl orders a second rum and Diet Coke, I suck in my gut, and slide down the bar.
“I can tell you that by sitting on the inland side of the bar, you give yourself ten minutes longer before the ice in your drink melts.”
“What?” the girl asks with a slow smile.
“It’s true, away from the wind the ice melts slower. I’ve been researching the effect for fifteen years.” I get Manuel’s attention and order two coconut rum shots.
Allison. Tan with a wide, pretty smile. She’s maybe in her early twenties. She flirts politely the way girls do with men old enough to be their fathers. She would be more cautious about local men her age, but since she correctly assumes I won’t pressure my way back to her hotel room, she lets me buy her drinks.
Some of the island boys, call themselves “The Shark Association” and keep tabs on who has slept with the most tourist girls. The wives and girlfriends in San Pedro don’t like it, but they make themselves clear— what passes between their men and tourists is nothing. Tourists are like inevitable storms that don’t leave the ground wet for long.
“This was supposed to be our last spring break together, so I feel really bad,” Allison
says pushing her ponytail over her shoulder. Allison’s roommate is back at the hotel sick from ingesting island water.
“It happens,” I say. “People forget and brush their teeth, or sometimes they get bad ice.”
“This is only our second day here.” Allison sits straight on her stool as straight as an arrow, a head above everyone else leaning on the bar. She seems older than a college student to me. Less awkward, with a poise I usually only see in women twice her age.
“Where are you in school?” I ask.
“We’re seniors at Stanford.”
“Smart girls then,” I say.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
I’m from California, but I don’t want to get into talking about it, so I lie, “Texas.”
“You don’t sound like it,” she peels off the corner of the wet label on her Belikin bottle.
I ask her what she and her roommate want to do while they are here. She says they had planned on snorkeling at Shark-Ray Alley with the stingrays and nurse sharks. The roommate wanted to go deep-sea fishing. I start to offer to take them out, but hesitate because Carmen would be angry.
Allison accepts a cigarette from my pack and says, “I hear you can feed crocodiles in the lagoon.”
“They like chicken necks.”
I light her cigarette and then my own. I almost tell Allison she has a mouth like my wife, but order another round of shots instead. She relaxes, finally leaning her elbows on the bar. She tells me about someone’s boyfriend. Hers? Her friend’s? I missed the beginning of the story, and now I am trying to piece it together as the faint lines on her forehead deepen with worry.
“I’m not in love with him or anything, but I think she should know. I wanted to tell her about it here, away from everything, but I can’t while she’s puking every—I’m talking too much.” She stretches back on the stool, revealing an expanse of smooth, tan belly and changes the subject, “How did you end up here?”
They all inevitably ask this question.
“It’s not a very interesting story.” I point across the bar to Benjamin with his crazy, white hair and say, “He has a good story.”
Benjamin is scribbling something on a napkin while Buzz, a man who lives at the Surfside, watches.
“The one with the white hair, that’s Jimmy Buffett’s manager from the early 80’s,” I say.
“Really?” She seems impressed.
Two seats down from Benjamin is Kathleen in a short dress exposing a pair of legs just as amazing as they were when we had a thing when I first arrived here. “Her story is interesting.”
I lower my voice. “The blond. Her husband owned a chain of department stores in Missouri. They’re divorced now. She took most of what he had, put him out of business and came here.”
Allison’s eyes are fixed on Kathleen who stares out to sea, looking beautiful in a way I haven’t noticed in a long time.
“She had her reasons,” I say and tip back the rest of my Belikin. I lift the empty bottle to get Manuel’s attention. When he turns around I see that he has been talking to Dizzy.
“Who?” Allison asks.
“The guy there with the walking stick,” I say and point my bottle subtly at Dizzy, who is hunched over, tapping his stick under a stool. Dizzy’s stucco mansion looks worse than the Surfside. “He once owned half of Caye Ambergis. They say his Mercedes was the first car on the island.”
Allison watches Dizzy in his shabby T-shirt and stained, straw fedora. She thinks I’m making it up. “What’s he doing?” she asks.
“Checking the floor for change.”
Here in San Pedro when someone gets involved with an impossibly beautiful girl or starts doing hard drugs or starts buying more land than they can afford, we say, “Don’t get yourself Dizzy,” as if heartbreak and crazy and bankruptcy were contagious, tropical diseases.
“If I had to guess. At this bar, right now, there is a net worth of at least seventy-five million.” I rub my hand against my chin feeling the stubble growing in.
Allison thinks I’m full of shit. Watching Dizzy look for the flash of coins under bar stools, you would never guess what he used to be. Judging by our tattered Bermuda shorts and various stages of unkempt hair and beards, you’d never guess who any of us used to be.
“But what about you? Why did you come here?” Allison sits straight up again on the barstool.
I shrug. “I came here to fish.”
“I think there’s something more,” she says. “By the end of the night, I’ll get it out of you.”
“You can try.”
“You came here to open a restaurant.” “No.” “A hotel.” “No” “To start a drug ring?” “No.” “You came here for a woman.” “No.” “To run away from a woman?”
Stanford girls. Too smart for their own good. I lie and say, “No,” because I don’t tell that story anymore. Unless I am really, really drunk.
Fifteen years ago, I married a woman I didn’t know. Lada was the sister of the Russian foreman on a framing job I had in a new subdivision in San Jose. I graduated with an art degree a decade earlier, but had fallen into one construction job after another. The foreman’s sister was a thin, ghost of a woman, pale with blond hair and almost invisible eyebrows and eyelashes. She was shy and reserved, nothing like the confident California girls I was used to. Watching her talk to her brother once at the work site, me with a row of nails pressed between my lips, a heavy hammer in my hand, I immediately felt the need to lay my body over hers to protect her.
“I’ll do it,” I said to the foreman one day when he said the only way she could stay was if she married an American.
When I was first married to Lada, I used to be seized with the fear that something would happen to her. Anything. Old brake pads I had forgotten to replace. Her pumping an unresponsive pedal and flying off a cliff into the Pacific. A race riot in the halls of the school where she taught French. Lada trying to stop the fight. Her tiny body caught between a fierce black kid and a white boy built like a tank. A knife. Or something worse: the escape of a virus. One deadly, microscopic virus, the flu to everyone else, a plague to her.
Shortly after we signed the license at the courthouse, my Uncle Bernie called to tell me how disgusted he was with me. Money would follow in the mail he told me gruffly. “Get another degree, business, law, agriculture, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “Anything would be better than art. You have a wife now and might have a family soon.”
I took the money and made a down payment on a dilapidated Victorian in Haight-Ashbury. Every day, I repainted, re-roofed, replaced. It changed me to own the house I worked on—to lay my hands on it, to make it stronger, to treat a home with corroded plumbing, broken windows, and poor insulation like a canvas. I sold the first one and walked away with a $30,000 profit. I bought another one, then another one. I never took another job. I bought and sold, always at the right time, putting time into hand carved banisters, custom windows, renovated kitchens, the things that can triple in value at closing.
After several years, I didn’t work on my own houses anymore. I hired masons, painters, carpenters. One spring, my lawyer took me fishing off the coast of Guatemala, and I fell in love. The aquamarine water, the silver of the fish beneath the surface, the lazy crossing of a stingray, the heat: they made me feel alive.
I knew Lada and I were strangers, but I thought living under the same roof, we would eventually get acquainted. I was wrong. For the last months of our four-year marriage, I returned to San Francisco only long enough to check on my properties and meet with my accountant. I would leave again at 4:30 in the morning without speaking to her as she slept soundly. She never asked when I was coming back. It turned out she hadn’t needed my protection after all.
In 1999, I came back from three weeks off the coast of Mexico with a two-hundred-pound swordfish on ice in the hull of my boat. She was gone. She had taken everything that was hers, had completely emptied out her drawers in the bathroom. There was nothing left of her except the two gifts from me that she had seemed to like the most, her turquoise earrings and the white halter dress with zebras on it. She left the dress folded on the bed, earrings resting on top, the way a respectful house guest might leave their used linens.
A week later, I woke up on my couch and realized there was no reason to stay, that there had never been any reason to stay. I packed my things and headed for the marina. I made my lawyer my business partner and hired a property manager. The money my accountant funneled to my account in Belize went so much further in San Pedro than San Francisco.
I arrived in San Pedro content to do nothing but fish. After a few months of pacing the deck of my boat, I settled into the Surfside. I had relationships with women like Kathleen that ended just as easily as they started, like neither of us had ever expected it to work out anyway. For over a decade, days rolled in and out with little variation. I was alone, but it wasn’t lonely. They say, “the tug is the drug,” and you know what they mean if you fish. Here is this expanse of water, the greatest nothingness we know except for outer space. Then you cast off into that emptiness and sometimes after a while, sometimes, right away, sinking lead after sinking lead, you feel something pull back. There is something on the other side of the line. Feeling that pull was all I wanted for a long time. Until Carmen.
Two more shots of coconut rum. Two more . . . ok, one more shot.
Allison and I are drunk. She is laughing at something I said, which I already can’t remember. Manuel looks angry. When Allison goes to the bathroom, he wipes up my scattered ash blowing between the glasses.
“What are you doing?” he asks,
“I’m having a drink.”
“Maybe you better think about who you’re drinking with.” He leans in closer and tries to take my last shot back. Before he can reach it, I grab his wrist to stop him.
“This is just two Americans talking about home,” I say and let his wrist go. He moves to the other side of the bar and dries glassware still watching me.
“The woman who was supposed to meet you tonight. She’s not your wife?” Allison asks when she returns.
“No. She’s a friend.”
“Then you’re divorced?” Allison asks.
“My wife left me along time ago. I moved down here, but we never officially divorced.”
The Islander is crowded now. Martin, my least favorite person on the island, maybe the world, comes over and places one liver spotted hand on my shoulder and another on Allison’s.
“I hope Tom isn’t boring you too much,” Martin says his breath sour with some meal he has just eaten. Martin lives off his wife’s family fortune, but leaves her most nights at their home on the island’s north shore. He calls himself a retired New York food critic, but this declaration does not seem to be linked with any actual publication. He still expects to be treated by the locals with the service a tourist receives at a resort, but he has lived here for five years.
Allison wraps her hand around my forearm and says to Martin, “Do you know how Tom ended up in San Pedro? He won’t tell me.” She smiles mischievously at me. I wish she could see how much I hate this man.
“Is that right?” Martin says with a heavy hand still on each of our shoulders. I shrug him off, but his hand remains on Allison’s bare skin.
“Well, I could share some stories about why Tom stays on the island.” He pulls a flask out of his inside jacket pocket and drinks from it, too cheap to order from the bar. “Where is Carmen anyway? I saw her with one of Jokin’s friends up the island. What’s that guy’s name, the one missing a thumb?”
I imagine taking him by the hair he has left at the back of the head and smashing his head against the bar. Instead I turn to him and ask, “And where’s your wife tonight? Too much Valium to make it into a golf cart?”
I wash the metallic taste in my mouth down with rum. Allison shifts uncomfortably on her stool.
“Oh, come now, let’s not insult each other in front of this young woman,” Martin says without losing his ridiculous grin. He looks at Allison and says, “When you get tired of this man, I’ll be over there. There are only a couple decent restaurants on the island. I’d love to give you my recommendations.”
We watch Martin sit down across the bar next to Duncan who politely adjusts his bar stool to make room.
“How do you know him?” Allison asks.
“I wish I didn’t.”
“I think I’ve got it,” Allison says pushing her finger into my arm harder than I think she
means to. “You killed someone, and you’re running from the law.”
“That’s it exactly,” I say. Her leg keeps bumping against mine. I stifle the urge to hook
my hand behind her knee.
She looked like she might actually believe me. “You shouldn’t tell strangers things like that.”
I look out to the darkness where the ocean is, take a cigarette and say, “Honey, I’m only telling you anything because you are a stranger.”
I inhale deeply and lick the traces of coconut rum off my chapped lips. It’s Lada I taste. Our honeymoon, a camping trip at Pismo Beach. She didn’t even know what a honeymoon was. Suntan oil and flecks of sand ground into our sleeping bags. At noon, sweating in the red light of the tent, her full lips, her tongue in my mouth.
The wind off the water pushes a wet chill through the bar, prickling the hair on my arms. I don’t know where I am. Thousands of miles from home getting drunk with a girl young enough to be my daughter, waiting for a woman still in love with her dead husband.
It’s then Carmen walks into the dim light of the bar. She waves to the beach at whoever she was talking with, “Mañana.” She leans against a wooden pillar and shakes sand out of her heels.
When I come over she says, “Don’t come over here all homesick with your dick hard from that gringa.” She bends down to fasten a strap without looking at me, but I can see she is not really angry.
“You know I’m too old for that.” I pull her to me, sliding my hands into the back pockets of her jean skirt. “Where’ve you been all night?”
“Visiting Diego.” She presses against me and folds her hand inside my belt buckle, but then as if remembering where we are, she steps back. “I think you drank too much. I’ll make you something to eat.” She walks into the kitchen.
By the time I sit down next to Allison, Manuel has shifted the game to his court. Her eyelids are heavy as he leans over the bar to refill her shot glasses. Manuel smirks at me knowing the younger man will win this round. I lay down enough bills to pay our bar tab. Manuel has to take them, but he doesn’t look at me.
“If your friend is feeling better tomorrow, I can take you fishing,” I say to Allison. “I’m at the Surfside Motel. Anyone can tell you how to get there.”
“Thanks for all the drinks,” she smiles and looks back to Manuel.
I pass Carmen carrying my plate from the kitchen. “Where are you going? Don’t you want this?”
I know in an hour or so, like she does every night, Carmen will push open the door to my room, kick her shoes across the sandy floor and whisper, “Ito, are you awake?”
I will pretend to be asleep so I can watch her as she feels along the wall until she finds the dresser that contains more of her clothes than mine. She will move through the darkness trying not to knock her makeup into the sink. She will navigate all the heels and mangled Spanish magazines strewn across the floor, making her way to my bed.
Standing in front of me with the plate heavy with beans, rice, and gooey plantains, she is so much shorter than me. Her dark hair is pulled back, damp at the edges from sweat. She is trying to figure out what I am thinking, like she always does.
“Are you mad because I’m late?” She smiles slightly.
How does she know how to do this, to gauge my exact level of frustration so that she can bring me back from the brink of giving up with her? I open my mouth to see what exactly will come out, sand or dust, fire or seawater, maybe blades this time.
“No, I’m not mad at you.” That is all I say.
“I will come by later,” Carmen says quietly, discreetly like the entire bar doesn’t already know where she stays.
From the street, I turn back to see Carmen at her usual spot at the corner of the bar. She watches Allison and Manuel, her mouth down-turned. His wife and son are on the mainland.
I will not be there when she comes home.
Wavering and sweating, I start walking toward the Surfside. A pack of bony dogs chase each other down a narrow alley cut crooked by leaning houses. A lizard darts over my foot. A pale, distant rind of a moon breaks over the palms. Two boys ride by on bikes, but it’s so dark I can only make out the shine off their chrome. They chant an American rap song played so often at Club Jaguar, even I know the words.
I stumble ahead, running my hand along a stucco wall that separates the houses from the road. I pause to stop the spinning. I listen to the sounds humming around me, cicadas, a tinny radio through a window, voices arguing in the distance.
I can’t hear the ocean from here, but I can feel it. I can feel the outgoing tide turning me around, charting a new course. It won’t take me long to pack. I can anchor out near the reef until morning, until I sober up, so Carmen can’t find me in the marina when I’m not in my room. The snappers are running right now off the shores of Guatemala. I can be there in two days. When true north has gone south, the tug on the line of countless, invisible fish is as good a reason as any to leave.