By: Eric G. Müller
Stacie looked out the airplane window. The last time she was in Cancun she got knocked up. That was fifteen years ago. An abortion, a string of boyfriends and a failed marriage lay between. Now she was a successful lawyer.
She stuck a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint into her mouth as they started to descend, hoping to avoid the inevitable pain in her ears during cabin pressure drop. She rummaged for her iPod in her purse, plugged herself in, put it on shuffle and listened to snippets of songs, clicking to the next every few seconds. It was almost noon. She leaned back, closed her eyes, yawned, chewed vehemently and repeatedly swallowed saliva to counteract the pain. It helped to shorten the excruciating moments. You’d think by now aviation technology would have come up with something. She hated landings, and couldn’t wait to be out of the plane, packed as it was with sassy students on spring break, raring to party. She’d booked her hotel months in advance to ensure a quiet room in the Golden Zone, just ten minutes from Cancun International airport by taxi.
The luxury resort was a massive futuristic looking ziggurat, and as soon as she entered her room she collapsed on the king-sized bed, panting through her mouth. She’d been up since 2 a.m. and apart from her clogged ears she had a splitting headache. She downed a second Tylenol, waited for relief to set in, and when it did, fell asleep.
The digital clock on her nightstand blinked 15:37 when she awoke. Stacie took a quick shower, slipped into an airy silk dress and went down to the bar for a quick espresso to clear her head and a piña colada to relax. The bar overlooked the serpentine pool that curved around two sides of the hotel – a resort out of reach for most students.
The summer before college she’d stayed in a budget hotel right in the center of Cancun – a week of beach, shopping, and night clubs, where she danced and drank till dawn. She’d been a straight A student throughout high school, rarely went out, and avoided parties. Her friends called her a party pooper and after graduation persuaded her to come along and “get a nightlife.” Reluctantly she agreed. After she won the bikini contest she was the star in her hotel. She hooked up with different guys every night, dancing and making-out – no further. As soon as the fondling began she’d beat a fast retreat to the bathroom. Finally she succumbed to the persistent onslaught of drink, charm and good looks of an exchange student from Oxford with a beguiling English accent. She let him into her heart and hotel room, where they stayed for the next three days.
She ordered another piña colada. To think she’d caved in to a player – to someone who was nothing more than a cunning high school dropout from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who’d acquired his disarming sua de vive by working the floor in various Casinos. She was angry all over again. On the last day they exchanged numbers and addresses with the promise to meet up. She had found her love. They called each other daily, but after she told him she was pregnant he ignored her calls and changed his cell phone number. E-mails and letters went unanswered. She went to Planned Parenthood, made an appointment and had the abortion.
Stacie found a lawn chair by the pool under a palm tree and smoked a cigarette. Her fingers trembled, her foot tapped the ground. For years she’d wanted to return to
Cancun and visit the historic sites and natural wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula, but had always put it off, scared it would break open old wounds. Now, after all these years she thought she’d left that all behind her – the pain and anger, those feeling of betrayal and the severe depression that had consumed her after the abortion, almost to the point of suicide. The relapse was like an erupting volcano, shooting suppressed memories out into the open. A few hours in Cancun, and already she regretted coming. What was I thinking?
Stacie got up and walked along the raked gravel path to the gate leading to the beach. She flipped off her sandals. The white sand was hot and she jogged to the water’s edge, letting the cool waves of low tide wash over her feet.
A week after the abortion she’d entered law school at Duke University and studied with a vengeance, graduating summa cum laude. She passed the bar exam with equal distinction.
She lit another cigarette, but almost immediately flicked it into the ocean and returned to her room. For five minutes she randomly flipped through TV channels, before hissing “Screw this.” She flung the remote on the bed, put on her new sneakers and hopped on the first available shuttle bus to Cancun center.
Men had vied for her, and she enjoyed going out with any number of them, but at the slightest hint of anyone wanting her to commit, she broke it off. She was even more ruthless with herself, cutting off all contact the moment she developed feelings for someone. Nor did she stay long at any law firm. She’d started with a six figure salary, and every change was a career move that came with a pay increase. She was willing to work hard, confirmed by her résumé and glowing recommendations.
She met her husband in a criminal law firm in Albany, NY. He was a senior partner and she worked many cases with him. He was the only person whose work ethics matched hers. The two were relentless. Whatever case they worked on together they won. They could read each other’s minds. A nod or a gesture between them was often all it took. No need for long discussions. Those who witnessed the proceedings in court or in meetings were unnerved. It was an almost mystical work relationship, which the couple mistook for love. They married with little fanfare, going to the marriage licensing bureau one Friday morning, only to return to work after a quick lunch at a fine restaurant. Two years later, when she accepted a job offer in one of the best law firms in Manhattan – too lucrative to refuse – the relationship fell apart. For six months she dutifully drove up to Albany on the weekends to be with him, but it was clear their marriage had no future. It was an amicable divorce.
Apart from new high-rise hotels and swanky shops, nothing much had changed in Cancun. Legions of students were already starting their club to club transmigrations. The industrial throb of loud music blared from all corners, merging with honking cars, shouts and laughter. She found refuge in the hush of an upscale restaurant and ordered coconut shrimp deep fried and a sparkling wine to go with the dish. She hoped a good dinner would restore her wits. Though excellent, she left most of the shrimp uneaten and returned to the hotel. She swallowed a sleeping pill and went to bed.
Over the last two years she hadn’t traveled at all. She knew she needed a break. The prolonged bouts of insomnia had made her short tempered and impatient, especially towards her co-workers, but also to her clients. She forgot appointments and began to have little mishaps, such as locking herself out of her car or dropping her new iPhone from the balcony of her 16th floor apartment. It was clear: she had to get away – someplace where she could relax and do some sight seeing. The barista who prepared her mid-morning cappuccino suggested the Yucatan Peninsula, raving about the ruins, cenotes, and great snorkeling. A fender-bender on the Saw Mill Parkway pushed her to buy the ticket.
The hotel offered daily excursions to the most popular tourist destinations, and the next day she did the Mayan Riviera tour. Though the stops at the underground caves of Rio Secreto, the ecological theme park at Xel-Ha, and the Mayan ruins at Tulum were spectacular, she found no joy. Her fraught nervous system resented the crowds, the tight schedule, and the shtick of the tour guides. She kept to herself and lingered behind the group, smoking when she could. On her return she cancelled the tour to Cozumel, an exotic island in the Caribbean. Instead, she rented a car for the week.
Knowing it was an almost hundred mile trip to Chichén Itzá she left early in the morning, taking the main highway to Merida. At around 10:30, feeling the need for coffee and a bite to eat she turned off the highway onto the parallel running ‘libre’ road, which was more scenic, and passed through many villages. To her surprise the villages were rundown and displayed squalor and abject poverty. Many of the houses were windowless shacks of cinder blocks and scrap materials such as plywood boards, plastic sheets and corrugated iron. Muddy yards were full of junk. Half naked children ran around, shouting, laughing. A world at odds with the luxury resorts of Cancun. Stacie was uncomfortably aware at the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots. Entering another village, she slowed down. A man in a hammock caught her eye and waved, smiling. She quickly looked away, embarrassed, and accelerated. There were no cafes that looked inviting.
It was another 45 minutes before she noticed Kukulkan Restaurant & Bungalows, about ten miles from Chichén Itzá. She slammed on the breaks and parked in the shade of a large Guadalupe palm. The Garden Restaurant was surrounded by an array of tropical plants and royal palms that stretched over thirty feet high. Stacie sat down at one of the wooden tables under a palapa. Except for a family of four and an elderly couple who were enjoying a late breakfast the place was empty. There wasn’t a waiter in sight. No three minutes had elapsed and already she felt annoyed at the lack of service, her leg shaking. As she lit a cigarette a shy teenage waitress came with the menu. Waving the menu aside Stacie ordered coffee and a Mexican omelet, “And add some avocados, please.”
She glanced around. Above her some colorful birds were building nests in the thatch. A maid brought fresh linen to the cabañas at the far side of the expansive lawn. A plump iguana walked gawkily across the lawn toward the pool where a man collected leaves with a net attached to a long pole. Geckos chased each other up the wooden posts of the palapa. She leaned back and took out a cigarette. Her eye came to rest on the pool cleaner. Every movement was measured and in slow motion. She watched the net as it floated half over the water, leaving tiny ripples in its wake. The cigarette remained unlit in her hand, her eyes mesmerized by the fluid movements. He wore white linen trousers and a linen shirt, which contrasted his brown arms and face. Slowly, back and forth he rowed with the pool net, trapping little insects, leaves and frangipani blossoms. It was like he was performing a sacred task. She was startled when the young waitress with the shy smile placed the order down in front of her, which immediately made her foot shake again.
During the meal her eyes kept on wandering over to the pool cleaner. His eyes were almost closed, like a somnambulist, cleaning in his sleep. Intermittently he took a step to the right, making his slow way around the large pool, stepping over the iguanas that chewed on fallen hibiscus blossoms. She ate and drank automatically. When her plate was empty, she was surprised. She hardly ever finished her food. Stacie didn’t leave until the cleaner had circled the entire pool and put down the pole. As soon as he was gone she paid and left.
She felt calm, refreshed and receptive when she arrived in Chichen Itza, taking her time walking around this huge archeological city of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. When she reached the top of the Kukulkan Pyramid, or El Castillo as it’s also known, she was overwhelmed by the view of the endless miles of jungle below her, and she felt an urge to scream in exultation – so unlike her. Later, when she leaned against one of the columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors, she realized that she hadn’t felt as free and enthused about anything in years. In this moment of unrepressed self-analysis she also noted that she was perfectly content just sitting there, taking in the atmosphere and looking at people passing by. She even sat up and listened to what a tour guide had to say about the carved columns depicting images of various warriors.
Back on the highway her nervousness returned. It annoyed her that she’d only seen a small part of the huge territory and felt sick at the idea of returning to Cancun.
Without much thought she put on the breaks, did a U-turn and headed back. Why not spend the night at the Kukulkan Restaurant & Bungalows?
Fifteen minutes later she’d checked into one of the cabañas. After a shower she sought out the same table under the palapa and ordered dinner. The pool cleaner was nowhere in sight. But the memory of his sacral strokes raking the pool was almost as good. That night she forgot to take the sleeping pill, and slept till the sun shone through her window.
An early riser, she was astonished it was almost 8:30. She looked out the window and saw the pool cleaner, dressed in white, already brushing off the algae from the floor with a long pool brush. His gentle but firm strokes were as even as they’d been with the skimmer net. Twenty minutes later she sat under the palapa for breakfast. Birds chirped, dew was on the grass, the blossoms gave off their perfume, and the gang of iguanas huddled around the pool man, who had now started to vacuum.
Slowly and systematically he moved the long aluminum pole along the bottom of the pool. His dark eyes were half closed, but they glistened in the morning sun. Watching him was like a massage; she felt the vacuum’s muzzle caress her skin, making its way along her arms, shoulders, back, belly and legs. She felt it gently loosen and suck up the debris and sediment caught on the floor of her psyche, along the sides of her mind. The pool man was thorough and he was in no hurry; time dissolved. The balanced to and fro of his rhythmic motions merged into one ongoing motif, like the throb of a jellyfish, or the gradual metamorphosis of summer clouds on a clear day. Her own body unconsciously and invisibly began to imitate the movements, her breathing leveled out, and her pulse slowed down. If the pool man noticed her staring at him, he did not show it. He kept cleaning, occasionally stepping over the stout iguanas that followed him around the pool, as if they too were in the spell of his hallowed activity.
Once he was done, Stacie returned to Chichen Itza. Before exploring she bought a guide book, determined to know all about the place that was recently named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The bulk of the tour busses had not yet arrived and there were many places in this expansive territory where she could be alone. The vendors were still setting up their wares along the path to the Cenote Sagrado. Stacie lingered at the impressive sinkhole, reading up on its background, imagining the nature of the sacrifices that were conducted during times of drought. She felt pity for the young girls who’d been forced to take the almost 90 foot leap to their deaths. For the rest of the morning she continued walking through the park, feeling uncommonly tranquil, light and unburdened.
That afternoon she drove the twenty odd miles to Valladolid, bought some clothes and necessities such as toothpaste and toothbrush, and returned to Kukulkan Restaurant & Bungalows where she checked in for the rest of her stay, only to return to her hotel in Cancun the night before her scheduled departure for New York.
Every day she watched the pool man with the black hair, sun-browned skin and white attire. Every day she let herself be massaged, brushed, caressed, sucked free of dregs and residue. Every day she felt lighter and more at peace. Every day she felt that hardened glob in her solar plexus recede. Every day she watched, mesmerized. Every day he went about his business as if he never noticed her. Every day she went on little outings feeling reawakened and younger.
On the final morning, throughout the extended breakfast, she savored watching the pool man one last time – the calmness with which he swept the surface of the pool with the net. She left the pretty waitress with the shy smile a generous tip and got up to pack.
Back in New York, whenever she felt restless, impatient or annoyed, the image of the pool cleaner from the Yucatan appeared, and she’d almost immediately relax and calm down. She felt grateful for that chance meeting, though their eyes had never met.