By Patty Somlo
Sarah Miles leaned against the white metal railing, as the ship made its way along the coast. White houses topped with red-tiled roofs spilled down the lush green hillside, not letting go of an early-morning pastel pink wash. Crystal clear water curled into glassy green waves. Barely a cloud marred the blue-saturated sky. No matter which direction she looked, every detail cried out for a photo. She’d left her camera packed in the duffle-bag and didn’t want to pull it out.
An hour slipped by, while Sarah let go of the lingering melancholy that had brought her on this trip. The scenery had so captivated her, it seemed only minutes since she’d boarded.
“We’re here,” a tall blond man announced, as the boat slowed down and stopped. He was standing feet from Sarah along the railing.
“This is it?” Sarah asked, surprised.
“Yes. Those boats will take us to shore.”
He waved his right hand out past the ship, to where small motorboats idled close by.
“Follow us,” the friendly fellow passenger instructed. “We’ve been here before. Kind of know the ropes.”
“Okay,” Sarah agreed.
She bent down and grabbed the long strap of her olive-green duffel-bag. Settling the strap over her right shoulder, she proceeded to follow the guy and a woman whose hand he was holding to the far end of the boat.
Although this was her first visit, Sarah knew a few facts about Talucca. The tiny Mexican village overlooking the Pacific lacked electricity, roads, and even cars. Most tourists arrived on the big boat just for the day. Unlike them, Sarah had bravely booked a place for two weeks, and might stay longer. Open-air restaurants, one with a throbbing crimson patio, sat feet from where waves dampened the clean white sand. Above the restaurant a dozen thatch-roofed palapas belonging to the Talucca Hotel perched like sentries guarding the shore. The hotel and few restaurants had generators to power lights. Everyone else in Talucca, except the Lopezes, who owned nearly all the tourist-oriented businesses, got by with candles, kerosene lamps and flashlights.
A motorboat ferried Sarah, along with Alec and Kristin, the nice guy and his wife, a short distance toward shore, where the water became too shallow. When the boat stopped, Alec smiled and said to Sarah, “This is it. We have to get out and walk.”
Alec helped his wife and then Sarah clamber over the side. Once Sarah was out, Alec handed her the olive-green duffle.
Struggling to hold the bag out of the water, high enough to stay dry, Sarah plodded through the knee-deep, lukewarm surf. Stepping onto the sand, she stopped and looked around. A young man with sun-bleached hair was waving at her, she thought. As she watched, he raised a large white board that said, Bienvenida Sarah! She smiled, raised her right hand, and waved back.
Two months before this perfect morning, Sarah had reached the sober age of forty. The milestone left her depressed. On the one hand, she ran a successful business, promoting films, dance performances, plays and other cultural events. Influential people referred her to others, so work easily came her way. Recently, she’d considered renting an office and hiring an assistant, instead of working alone from home.
While she’d had success, Sarah couldn’t ignore one fact. The work left her feeling hollow.
Her fortieth birthday had also coincided with the end of her latest affair. As with previous lovers, Sarah had let herself imagine a future with Marcus. That fantasy had been a mistake. She and Marcus were having dinner at a restaurant up the block from her San Francisco flat, to celebrate her birthday. Suddenly, she let slip her desire for Marcus to move in with her. Loud music from a small jazz combo playing close to their table had forced Sarah to shout.
Marcus didn’t respond, but Sarah felt certain he hadheard her. That’s because he nodded his head, right before turning and waving to get the server’s attention. The server came and went, after Marcus ordered another glass of red wine, failing to ask Sarah if she cared for a second white. He then related something that had happened at work.
The following week, Marcus didn’t call or respond to Sarah’s texts. At the end of a week without speaking to, or hearing from, Marcus, Sarah recalled the impatient look on his face, when she said she wanted them to live together.
She needed to get out of town, to some place beautiful and inexpensive. She especially wanted to avoid romantic resorts, where couples might be there to celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary.
The young man with the sign introduced himself as Chele Lopez. He explained that he was the son of Octavio Lopez, owner of the palapa where Sarah would be staying.
“It is way up top,” he said, in heavily accented English, gesturing toward the sky. “I will carry your bag.”
Sarah handed him the duffel-bag, saying gracias, then shot her gaze up the hill, acknowledging that the climb appeared hard.
“Are you ready?” Chele asked.
Sarah noticed what a nice smile the young man had. She thought it might be fun to stay on the beach with him, but agreed she was ready to start climbing.
The path was rocky, steep and dry. Compact houses were scattered here and there, to the left and right. Palm fronds swayed in the breeze, along with wide, shiny banana leaves. The damp heat and uphill climb had made Sarah sweat. She stopped and wiped her brow, then turned around to snatch a quick glimpse of the coast.
“Oh, it’s like a dream,” she said.
The next morning, Sarah sat in a wicker chair, on the little patio in front of her palapa. She sipped coffee and listened to the bird calls. Palm fronds rattled in the wind. The anger she’d felt toward Marcus for weeks rose up, and she scratched out some quick words in her journal about how sad the ending of this relationship and being single again at forty made her feel. Middle-aged and drifting, as if she’d climbed into a boat with no destination, she couldn’t help asking herself, What’s the point? Would she keep going from man to man, relationship to relationship, enjoying a few weeks of some man’s company, only to be left alone?
As quickly as it had emerged, the rage was replaced by despair. Tears streamed from Sarah’s eyes. She failed to notice someone standing not far from the porch.
Chele waited, unsure what to say. He’d never seen a grown woman cry. The nineteen-year-old, who had been given the nickname, Chele, before he learned to walk, had come up the hill to invite Sarah to dinner at his parents’ house.
It was common for locals to give nicknames, based on how a person looked or the type of work he did. Chele had gotten the nickname, meaning Blond Boy, because of his lovely green eyes, passed down from his grandmother Doña Alicia, his light-shaded skin, and hair that turned a rusty yellow from the sun. His given name, Octavio, seemed too big a mouthful for an infant who still crawled across the concrete floor. No one in Talucca knew where Chele’s gringo-like features had come from, since both his parents were dark. The locals felt it wasn’t their place to try and find out.
Chele was tall by Talucca standards. Girls giggled in his presence, admiring his exquisite eyes and perfectly proportioned face. When he smiled, as he often did, those girls felt incapable of turning away, growing warm and praying he wouldn’t notice.
None of the young women knew that Chele had a plan, or at least a dream he vowed to turn into concrete action. He was determined to go to El Norte, to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, where he hoped to make his fortune.
Chele had been saving every peso he earned, taking tourists on horseback, up the steep hill from the beach, to what he touted when selling the ride as a secret waterfall. Weekend nights, he waited tables at the only restaurant not on Talucca’s beach, a colorful place named El Gallo, midway up the hill, with a memorable view down the coast. His plan to immigrate to the United States was still unformed, but he often toyed with options in his mind. One ticket would be to get a tourist visa and fly, but not return to Mexico when the visa expired. A second idea was to entice one of the young single tourists he flirted with to marry him, and in that way get a green card.
Right now, Chele needed to do something about this sobbing woman and he didn’t know what. He’d never had a serious girlfriend, so his experience was sparse. At nine, his one sister was a long way from becoming an adult. And his mother was a mother, strong and never sad, who comforted others, instead of needing comfort herself.
In addition to being cute, charming and smart about money, like his father who owned almost every profitable business in Talucca, Chele had an additional talent. He could sing. This ability was one major reason he wanted to cross the border and settle in Los Angeles. People in Talucca told him he should try his luck on one of those talent shows on TV.
Still unsure what to do, Chele pulled a clean white folded handkerchief from his pocket. He stretched out his right hand, holding the small square of cloth, toward the sobbing woman, and tapped her on the shoulder, using the index and third fingers of his left. Feeling his fingers, Sarah jumped, then raised her head.
“Please,” he said, thrusting the handkerchief toward her.
Sarah palmed the handkerchief, then used it to dab her cheeks and eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, handing the handkerchief back to Chele. “I was feeling very sad. I’m better now.”
“I am sorry you are so sad,” Chele managed to get out.
“Thank you, Chele. I am sorry too.”
Chele suddenly remembered why he had hiked up the hill.
“My mother wants you to come for dinner,” he said. “Tonight, she is making pozole.”
An image of sweet Chele’s face stayed with Sarah the entire afternoon. Though still slim and attractive at forty, with auburn hair cut in a hip, layered style, Sarah couldn’t deny that Chele was way too young. Nevertheless, she let herself imagine dancing with him, swaying her hips in time to the one-two beat of a cumbia, on the red concrete patio next to the sand.
Or walking arm in arm with Chele on the beach, watching moonlight caress the waves. She might unfurl a thin bamboo mat onto the beach, still warm from the afternoon sun. She and Chele would sit and talk, sharing details of their very different lives. Chele would be intrigued by Sarah’s stories, unlike men she dated back home. She would be fascinated with how a boy grew up in a place like Talucca, lacking electricity, roads and cars.
A small square mirror in a white plastic frame sat atop the dresser in her rented palapa. Sarah pulled on a sundress she’d picked up on sale, made of a thin slippery material that refused to wrinkle. She lifted the mirror, moving it closer, then further away, struggling to squeeze her body into the reflection. There was no full-length mirror in the palapa. Sarah decided she looked okay.
The roaring generator made it hard to hear Señor Lopez, sitting at the far end of a long table, covered with a transparent plastic sheet. All six children occupied seats in the center. Señora Lopez hurried in and out of the dining room, balancing covered containers of steaming tortillas, and cold drinks, the outsides of the tall bright green, yellow and pink plastic cups sweating in the heat. Chele sat directly across from Sarah, his olive-green eyes on her face.
Señora Lopez set a dish down in front of Sarah, covered with a pale-yellow substance, a cross between pasta and corn. Thin strips of dark brown meat were laid over the top, mimicking a wagon wheel.
“Pozole,” Chele explained to Sarah, pointing to the yellow-white part.
“And duck,” he added, his index finger aimed toward one meat strip.
Chele went on to say that his father had killed two ducks that day, then pointed out to the yard. Sarah spotted several large birds, the lucky ones, she figured, waddling around.
Rising above the clatter of the generator, Señor Lopez shouted that a famous preacher had just arrived in Puerto Vallarta.
“He is a healer,” Señor Lopez claimed. “He operates on people without any instruments.”
Sarah assumed she hadn’t understood. She’d learned Spanish ages ago but her comprehension was poor.
“He worked on Chele’s arm,” Señor Lopez said. “Just with his mind.”
Over the course of the next half-hour, Sarah got the gist of the story. According to Chele’s father, two years before, a lump had appeared on Chele’s left arm. At first no bigger than a pea, the lump grew. In less than a month, it swelled to three times its original size.
“A tumor,” Señor Lopez said now, giving the unwelcome growth a name.
Señor Lopez then related how he’d heard about this pastor when he was in Puerto Vallarta tending to some business.
“He can heal anything, people told me. So, the next day I took Chele to Puerto Vallarta.”
The boy and his father joined fifty or more men, women and children waiting in line. The morning was hot, and they hadn’t thought to bring water. After several hours, Chele and his father had moved closer to the large white tent, where the healer was seeing patients. It would take another two hours before the Lopez father and son made their way inside.
The father was not allowed to stay for the operation. When Señor Lopez asked Chele what had happened, his son couldn’t say. All the father and son knew was that Chele’s arm was wrapped in a white bandage and the pastor claimed the tumor was gone.
The following day, Chele’s mother removed the bandage, to clean the wound, as the healer had instructed.
“There was nothing there,” she broke in to say. “No tumor. No stitches. Nothing.”
The whole thing sounded like a made-up story to Sarah, and she waited for someone to admit the tale wasn’t true. But Chele’s parents insisted this had happened. Chele stretched his left arm out and pointed.
“The tumor was here,” he said.
Sarah could see nothing that marred the perfection of Chele’s smooth brown skin.
What harm would it do, Sarah asked herself the following morning, as she waited for the boiling water to seep through the dark brown coffee grounds into her cup. A little fling with this cute young guy might be fun.
That night, Chele climbed the hill to visit Sarah. They talked on the patio, under a dark sky stuffed with stars. When he stood to leave, he couldn’t help but lean in close. Without another thought, he kissed her. Since she didn’t object, he kissed her a second time.
He suddenly felt emboldened to suggest they move indoors, onto the bed, but decided that would be going too far.
Home in bed, Chele told himself the gringa would be his ticket out. He’d watched her between kisses, and thought she might be a little in love with him. When Sarah returned to San Francisco, Chele would apply for a visa to join her. Hollywood couldn’t be far.
Chele didn’t consider that Sarah might have different plans. That same night, she lay in bed, imagining she could give up her lonely, complicated, San Francisco life, and settle in this quiet coastal spot. She and her young lover-turned-husband would have children, keeping busy with their small businesses, serving tourists, and spending time with their family.
Sarah wasn’t surprised the next night when she and Chele ended up in the double bed, hanging like a swing from the palapa’s low ceiling. The bed, Chele had informed Sarah, was kept off the floor to prevent scorpions from crawling in. The act was over, only a short time after it started.
I will need to teach him some things, Sarah thought, after her young lover got dressed and walked out the door.
At dinner the next week, Señor Lopez told Sarah she should marry Chele. Hearing those words, Sarah felt the blood rush to her cheeks. She feared Señor Lopez had learned about Chele spending time in her bed.
He went on to explain that Chele had a dream to live in the United States. Since Sarah wasn’t married, he argued the idea made sense.
Sarah smiled, trying to hide her discomfort. If she were to marry Chele, it wouldn’t be to take him away.
Days and nights unfolded much like in a dream. Sarah started each day on the patio, sipping coffee, and marveling that she’d ended up in this place. She waited each morning for one of the local women to walk up and stop next to the palapa. The sweet aroma from slices of warm coconut pie set atop the woman’s metal tray filled the air.
“Gracias,” Sarah would say, handing the pie-seller some folded pesos, then taking a plate from the tray and setting it down on the table, next to her chair.
Sarah spent hours each day on the beach, stretched out on a lounge chair, watching waves roll in and retreat. Every so often, she waded into the water, letting the waves lift her up and rock her. Other times, she walked the beach, conjuring up schemes that might make it possible to stay in Talucca forever.
Every few nights, she stepped down the trail to the Lopezes’ house and ate with the family. The food was spicier than Sarah preferred but she managed, by sipping sweet soda or fruit punch between bites. Later in the evening, Chele would arrive at the palapa, and they would make love, the bed swaying from side to side.
Each day, Sarah felt herself healing, not only from the bad end to the affair with Marcus, but from other sad and disappointing experiences with men. Talucca, with its perfect weather and gentle breezes, gorgeous clear water and white sand, and Chele’s sweet face, provided the medicine she needed. For that reason, she extended her stay three more weeks and didn’t know what she would do when the time ended.
During dinner a week later, Señor Lopez again suggested she marry Chele. Sarah didn’t notice when a moment later, Chele shook his head and grimaced. Yes, he’d hoped to go north one day and become a famous singer. But lately, he’d gotten interested in something else.
As soon as they finished eating, Chele surprised everyone by announcing he wasn’t feeling well. To make the point, he pressed a hand against his belly. Señora Lopez ran her palm across Chele’s forehead, then hurried out.
Moments later, she returned, handing Chele a glass filled with a thick white liquid she urged him to drink. He took the glass and drank it down, shaking his head, as if trying to get the sour taste out. Señora Lopez suggested Chele climb into bed.
“I’ll be fine,” Sarah assured Chele, before he left the room, when he said he didn’t like her walking alone in the dark.
Chele waited long enough to be sure Sarah had made it back to her palapa.
“I feel better,” he told his mother, stepping into the kitchen.
“You probably ate too fast,” she scolded.
“I’m going to take a walk. To cool off,” he said.
“You should stay home. And rest.”
“I told you, I’m fine. I won’t be long.”
She noticed Chele had changed his shirt from the old, slightly faded one he’d had on at dinner to a shiny blue one she hadn’t seen him wear.
Three days before, a pretty young woman had arrived in Talucca. She had travelled from Mexico City, having just completed her first year at the university. Her uncle owned the Talucca Hotel and had offered her a summer job.
Chele sat at the same table he’d occupied earlier that day, on the far end of the crimson patio. Two other tables were filled with tourists. He looked for her, around the patio, and then over at the bar.
Moments later, she stepped out from behind the bar, balancing a round tray above her head. She walked toward one of the two occupied tables.
Her name, Chele had learned, was Marisol, and she was studying to be a teacher. She was slender and small, young-looking to be at the university. Chele watched her lean over the table and place each glass down, then collect the tourists’ pesos and pull change from her black apron.
He was about to wave, when she noticed him. She nodded and headed his way, the empty brown tray grazing her thigh.
He’d only seen her a few times, but Chele already loved everything about her. He loved her long black hair, cut to frame her oval face, and forming a precise triangle down her back. He loved her large brown eyes, high cheekbones and somewhat shy smile. He loved the modest curves of her body, filling out the short clingy sundress, making him eager to learn how she would look without it.
“Hello,” Chele said, once she was standing next to his table.
The following night, Chele didn’t show up at Sarah’s palapa. By ten o’clock, she knew he wasn’t coming. It was late, but that didn’t stop her from walking down to the Lopezes’ house.
Reaching the front door, Sarah knocked and waited. When no one answered, she knocked a second time. She considered opening the door and slipping into the living room. Just then, Señora Lopez stepped outside.
“Sarah,” she said.
“I knocked, but no one heard me.”
“It’s late. Is everything all right?”
Sarah murmured that she was fine, then apologized for coming at that hour.
“I just wanted to see how Chele was doing,” she said.
“Oh, much better,” Señora Lopez responded. “He felt fine after you left.”
Felt fine after you left. Sarah heard those words like an insult.
“Is he home?” Sarah asked.
“No, he went out somewhere. He never says.”
Sarah swallowed hard. Her throat felt scratchy and dry. She was tired, she said, and needed to head back to the palapa.
Señora Lopez asked again, “Are you all right?”
Sarah assured her she was fine.
She hurried up the hill, aiming her gaze on the trail ahead, to avoid tripping over rocks. Noticing that one of her sandal straps had loosened, Sarah stopped to tighten it.
Straightening up, she looked out toward the ocean, lit up by the full moon, aglow in a clear dark sky.
I will leave tomorrow, she announced, deciding right then to cut the trip short, even though she’d planned to stay longer.
The night was lovely, causing Sarah’s heart to ache, for having ruined her stay. Why had she gotten involved with this young guy, when they couldn’t possibly have a future together? She wished she could turn back time to the day she arrived in Talucca, and start over again.
Just as Sarah was about to resume walking, she spotted them, slowly strolling up the beach, holding hands. Every few feet, the couple would stop and kiss. He was tall. She was slender, wearing a snug dress that stopped above her knees.
Sarah guessed the woman to be a tourist, staying at the hotel. She wondered how long they’d been together, and if Chele slept with her. Then she told herself it didn’t matter.
“Well, that’s that,” she said.
Sarah slid the envelope under the Lopezes’ front door. In addition to the note she’d written after returning to the palapa, Sarah included a check for everything she owed. She didn’t go into a long explanation for her sudden departure.
Men with small motorboats hung around the beach, available for hire. The cost to sail up the coast to Puerto Vallarta was low, a tenth of what the big tourist boat charged.
The sun was just coming up, as the small vessel inched north. So beautiful, Sarah thought, still angry and disappointed with herself. Other than finding a hotel room in Puerto Vallarta, she didn’t have a clue how the coming days might unfold.
Señora Lopez noticed the envelope lying on the floor, a few inches from the front door.
“What is this?” she asked, bending over to pick it up.
Chele was sitting at the dining room table, sipping sweetened coffee mixed with milk.
“Did you know the gringa was leaving, Chele?” his mother asked, handing him the note, while holding onto the check.
“Leaving?” Señor Lopez said. He had just walked in from outside.
“She’s probably gone by now,” Señora Lopez explained. “The note says she planned to hire one of the little boats to take her to Puerto Vallarta, after dropping this off.”
Chele quickly unfolded the note, anxious to see what Sarah had written. From the look on his mother’s face, he feared she had revealed everything. He ran his eyes down the page, then read the words again. Relieved, he gave his mother back the paper.
“What did you do to make her leave, Chele?” his mother demanded to know.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said, his head turned away.
“Well, we just lost a couple weeks’ rent,” Señor Lopez complained.
Chele’s face grew warm.
“I think Chele knows why she left,” Señora Lopez announced. “I think he knows.”
Two hours later, Chele was walking up Puerto Vallarta’s main street, crowded with tourists. Every time he passed an outdoor café, he searched from table to table, thinking he’d spotted her, but on second glance, realizing he hadn’t.
He hit the beach, crowded with lounge chairs and colored umbrellas. It was hard to get a good look at people under sunglasses and hats. Gleaming white walls of fancy hotels threw back light. He heard music from portable radios and hotel speakers. In addition to bodies stretched under umbrellas, people jumped and laughed in the waves. Couples strolled the beach, plodding through surf at the water’s edge.
Chele feared he wasn’t going to find her. My punishment, he thought, for thinking I could fool around like that.
But then, he did spot her, walking ahead of him, her feet splashing through the waves. He recognized the hat she was wearing, and the off-white sundress. He hurried to catch up, though he didn’t know what he would say.
On reaching Sarah, Chele matched his steps to hers, walking on sand the waves hadn’t dampened.
“Sarah,” he whispered.
“Chele. What are you doing here?”
Chele could hear his mother scolding him. It’s your fault she left.
“It’s my fault,” Chele said.
“What’s your fault, Chele?”
“That you left,” he said.
“It’s not your fault. I just needed to go.”
“My mother wants you to come back. You should come,” Chele insisted.
“Tell your mother I’m sorry, Chele. I’ve made other plans.”
With that, Sarah headed up the beach toward town.
The following morning, she was sitting at a small round table, in front of the hotel where she’d slept the previous night. She sipped a café au lait and watched people pass, locals, some elderly, and others younger, carrying babies. The waiter came by and set a large plate with scrambled eggs and potatoes in front of her.
“Do you know where all these people are going?” Sarah asked.
He studied the line of men, women and children passing on the sidewalk, then turned and looked directly into Sarah’s eyes. An unmistakable thrill ran through her body, as his large dark eyes caressed her face.
“They are here to see the famous preacher,” he said. He smiled, and a dimple appeared under his high left cheekbone.
“A famous preacher?” Sarah asked.
“Yes. They say he can heal anything. Just with his mind.”
Sarah nodded and smiled. The waiter was young, only a few years older than Chele, and even better looking.
Keeping his gaze on her face, he asked if there was anything else she needed. Sarah took a moment to consider what she might say and whether she had the courage to be honest.
“No, nothing,” she finally responded. “There’s nothing I need. Just the check, por favor.”
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests.