had been coming to the same place in summer for seventeen years, not every year
but most years, so that Señor Fuentes, who owned the little, rundown hotel
where the two women always stayed, had long made his peace with the fact that
they were mariconas -- women who bedded with other women as God
had surely intended they should not -- and had come to like them very much, pleased
not only with their faithful patronage but also with their kindly ways. Señor
Fuentes was glad to see them arrive, sorry to see them go, but in the last few
years his sorrow was streaked with the bittersweet knowledge that they had all
aged together, he and the women and his hotel, and he wished that they had learned
more Spanish or he spoke better English, or that he had been able to overcome
his misgivings and invite them to his house across the road to share a fine meal
prepared by Señora Fuentes, and then the two women would have known real
Mexican food, felt real Mexican hospitality! In his private thoughts, they were
friends; he would have liked to be friends in fact.|
But then he would mock himself and think of something else, for he was afraid of his neighbors' ridicule. And after all, he still had one unmarried daughter at home and although she was almost forty and plain as a post (and so bland of personality that she kept a vial of Holy Water in her room) who could ever tell what was in another's mind? Even a kindly man must remain wary in this world.
And so, Señor Fuentes and the two women kept to conversations made up mostly of things like "Buenas dias" and "Buenas noches" and "Como esta usted?" and "Bien, muy bien!"
Nevertheless, Señor Fuentes took a proprietary interest in the two women's doings and had built up quite a little fund of information about them over the years, and this was done simply by using his ears and his sharp black eyes. Between their visits, he seldom thought about them, but each year that the bus from Tilco, to the north, shook and wheezed to a stop in the square and the two women were among the few to alight, Señor Fuentes thought of little else until they left again. They were an event in his life; seeing them, he felt a small curl of pleasure, a small relief, and his curiosity scuttled like a crab through his days.
While he had, in the early years, called them both 'Señorita' and had badly garbled their surnames, as they all aged he began to call both women 'Doña', bounding eagerly from behind his counter to press their hands in greeting even before they signed the book, and he personally carried their bags to their room. Always, they paid for their stay in advance; never did they question, as his prices slowly rose.
Even in winter, his busy season, Señor Fuentes' hotel seldom had more than fifteen or sixteen of its twenty-five rooms occupied. For while the little town boasted a beautiful old church and mission and several acceptable cantinas, and only a short walk brought one down a gently sloping road to a beach that lay like spilled sugar upon the shore, the town had never thriven, never grown much, and the turistas who came seldom returned a second time, so that always there were new faces but not many. All this would change someday, he knew. Someday the big capitalistas, with their great bundles of dollars, would come to swallow the town in glass and steel and tennis courts and marinas, and the broad roads would unfurl and the cars and buses would glide into the square as fine on the insides as houses on wheels, and he would be given for his hotel enough money to choke a hog. Until then, he was content to work just enough and worry just enough to live decently and no more. Fuentes knew he was a lucky man.
And yet he was sometimes restless, sometimes bored, and so he found himself happy whenever the two women came.
"They are like the rain," he said to his wife. "It may hide for a time but then it always returns."
"They are like women!" his wife said, her face closed. "And silly women, too! And you are a very great fool."
"Rain brings life," he argued, remembering the yawning length of summers without the women, and sticking out his lip.
"Rain brings mud," his wife answered, slanting her eyes. "And this rain brings me sheets that are wet for no good reason!" she flung, shocking him, and insuring her victory by stalking from the room. But then, his wife, (though he still loved her and though she had been comely in her youth), was only an ignorant country woman. She could not be expected to understand things that he, who had gone to school and who, as a young man, had served in the army and seen Mexico City and Mazatlan, understood.
Nor did he discuss the two women with his cronies, though they sometimes pried; they were not sophisticated men. When any of his friends began to speak of the women, Señor Fuentes took refuge in an air of ignorance and a shrug. "My eyes have no mouth", he thought, nodding smugly to himself, but in reality he kept the thoughts of the women to himself in the way that a man hoards the knowledge of a secret possession, looking at it only when the door is locked and the rest of the house is asleep.
He felt, for example, that the younger of the women was the 'boy', not from any great difference in the way they looked or dressed but from something subtler than that; a solicitousness, a protective air, a softening of her voice when she spoke to her friend. 'La Señor', he called the younger woman in his mind, the mingling of feminine and masculine terms butchering the language but giving credence to what he saw when he looked at her.
Younger by ten years or more, La Señor was also the quieter and graver of the two, although she often laughed heartily at things the other woman said or did. (Señor Fuentes had himself laughed aloud to see the older woman squatting down to cluck back at a red chicken flapping in the dusty road.) It was La Señor who sometimes hired and drove the hotel car, who arranged for baskets of food and wine to be packed, who loaded herself with canvas and easel and the box of paints and brushes when they walked down to the beach, La Mujer -- The Woman -- trotting along with only a book and blankets in her hands.
This painting on the beach was a ritual. Whatever else they did, each morning that the weather was fine the two women rose early, breakfasted, and then off they would go for a few hours, La Señor burdened with her artists' paraphernalia and walking slowly with her head bent as if she were slightly baffled at her good luck, while beside her La Mujer talked and talked, waving her laden arms about, talking of....what? By the end of two weeks, the women were as brown as the skin of Señor Fuentes' forearm; in the years they stayed three weeks, when they left they were dark as mestizas.
And always, La Señor painted the same thing. In broad, hard strokes, La Señor painted the ocean. First she painted a strip of beach, and then the waves rolling out and out to the horizon. Now and then she added great, obese gulls with wings impossibly long for flight. Sometimes she placed the dot of a steamer far out on the horizon, the smoke from its funnels rising thick in a perfectly straight, perfectly gray line. Sometimes she set an imaginary house or two out on the sand, incongruous flowers banked beneath the windows in a soil where no flowers could grow. The waves of her ocean were all the same clear blue, each one carefully topped with a line of foam like a cap of neat, white freckles; the waves that broke in the forefront of her paintings were always very small but as they marched toward the horizon they grew larger and larger, so that halfway up the canvas the ocean met the sky like hills of bright water.
Señor Fuentes thought these paintings very fine, so fine that one year he asked La Señor (but delicately, so there could be no offense) if she would consider painting one for him in return for some adjustment in the cost of their stay. La Señor shook her head, but she smiled as though she were pleased, and when the two women left and Señora Fuentes and her daughter went to clean the room in hopes of another guest, they found that year's painting propped against the headboard of the bed. For almost a decade, now, the painting had hung behind the counter, in a place of honor between the bandolier Señor Fuentes had worn in his army days and a serape that had belonged to his father.
But sometimes there were problems, too. Two summers after the year La Señor had left him his painting, the hotelkeeper saw an odd difference in the women; where before there had only been closeness, between them hung a darkness and a distance. He saw that they looked at each other with hard eyes, even as they smiled. It was as if they stood in a field of ice, and a wind was blowing.
No picnic baskets were packed that year, no long drives were taken. While La Señor still went faithfully to the beach to paint, she often went alone. On the few mornings that La Mujer appeared, her face held no laughter; looking reluctantly at the road that led down to the water, she trudged beside La Señor and both women were mulish with silence. In the evening, where in past years they had gone for a stroll or to one of the cantinas to drink a little wine and talk, they stayed like prisoners behind the closed door of their room, and several times the voices behind that door were raised in anger or in sorrow.
Then, in the beginning of the second week, a third woman came asking for them; a thin, dark young woman with bold bright eyes and a red mouth and a laugh like the bray of a crow; a putana, if ever Señor Fuentes had seen one. Coldly, he rented this woman a room.
Then he watched as the putana toyed with La Señor and La Mujer; saw La Mujer's stiff, white face; noted the dull guilt, the shaking hands of La Señor. Even while the putana smiled on both women as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, her whole being strained toward La Señor. She reminded Señor Fuentes of a mantis gauging, with shivering accuracy, the distance between its target and its hooked and greedy arms.
One night, Señor Fuentes suddenly woke, as though his dreams had passed close by his face and lingered in the room's shadows. He looked over at the still, warm lump that breathed beside him and then carefully eased his way out of bed. Señor Fuentes crept to the window of his bedroom and peered out. The night was bright with moonlight; across the road, the front of his hotel was awash with silver and through this silver light La Señor and the putana came. They moved across the patio and into the road and there, without shame, the putana suddenly turned and embraced La Señor, fiercely pressing her body into the other woman's body until La Señor pulled away. But then La Señor reached roughly for the putana, pulling her close again, bending her head to the shameless one's, so that they stood mouth on mouth in the moonlight.
"Estupido!" Señora Fuentes' voice sounded against his back. "What are you doing? Get into bed! The night grows old."
The hotelkeeper watched La Señor and the putana pass out of sight down the road, and then he turned from the window and sat heavily on the edge of the bed, thinking.
"Go to sleep, pendejo," his wife muttered, patting at his back with her hand. With a sigh, Señor Fuentes stretched out beside her and lay looking up into the darkness.
After a time, he said, "Rosa?"
"What, hijo mio?"
"What would you do if I were to bring another woman into this house?"
"Foof! Who would ever want you but me, old man?"
"But what would you do?"
She heaved herself up on one elbow and stared down at him; her long hair, graying now, tickled the skin of his shoulder, and for a moment he saw the wild young girl he had courted and caught. "I would cut your throat while you are sleeping!" she hissed. "I would break your foolish head with a pan!"
He laughed, contented, and reached for her, and she came into his arms with a pleasing ardor.
In the morning, he was not surprised when La Señor and La Mujer came very early to hire the car to drive them all the way in to Tilco, from where they would go home. La Señor apologized, and said that of course they would ask for no money back for the days they were not staying, as their departure was no fault of his but only the press of business they must attend to, and Señor Fuentes gravely wished them well. And when the putana came seeking them later in the day, he laughed in her face as he told her.
Yet he was uneasy, thinking that perhaps La Señor and La Mujer would not return, and in fact, the following summer he did not see them. But the summer after that, they came, and between them it was as if the putana had never existed. Things went on as before; most summers they were there, now and then they were not.
Then, one year, they returned and Señor Fuentes, who prided himself on his equanimity among many other things, was profoundly shocked; in the space of that single year, La Mujer had become a very old woman. That year, they arrived not by bus but by car, and when they parked in front of the hotel, Señor Fuentes almost failed to recognize the shrunken woman La Señor helped from the passenger's seat. Then he pressed his thin lips into his usual welcoming smile, determined that no sign from him should betray his distress.
The skin beneath La Mujer's eyes was bruise-blue. Her wrists and elbows jutted from arms that were whittled sticks. The fine flesh of her face was coarse. Her skull was covered with a thin, faded stubble. When they walked across the patio and into the lobby, she leaned on La Señor, and she stopped often to catch her breath, and did not lift her feet with each step, but shuffled.
They only stayed for a week. Most days, La Mujer lay on a cot Señor Fuentes had the kitchen-boy drag out into the patio; propped up with pillows, eyes shut and face turned toward the sun, the sick woman lay while La Señor read to her from books until she dozed. Once, that year, they went down to the beach; on this occasion, La Señor gave the boy a few pesos to carry La Mujer, then a few more pesos for returning in an hour to carry her back.
"That is a dead woman," Señora Fuentes said, shaking her head. "All that is left is to pull the earth over her face."
"Hush, bruja!" her husband cried, making the sign to keep back the evil eye. "She may yet get better." And he pulled out all his ledgers, soothing himself with the marching columns of meaningless numbers.
But that afternoon, he came upon La Señor crouched near the the cot at the far end of the patio, weeping as though her heart would drown, while La Mujer held the younger woman's hand to her lips and murmured soothingly into its palm. Moving away on the tips of his toes, Señor Fuentes knew that his wife had been right.
The next year, La Señor arrived alone.
She carried no easel, no box of paints, no canvas; only one small bag. In her eyes was the look of an animal bitter at a wound it has received but does not understand. As usual, Señor Fuentes came from behind the counter to press her hands in welcome; La Señor's hands were cold in his. Fuentes' manner was formal and he forebore to comment on the absence of La Mujer. He was a man of tact, after all.
For a day and a night and a day, La Señor did not leave her room; when she did, toward nightfall of the second day, she wore the same clothes in which she had arrived, and she moved like a sleepwalker through the little lobby.
Señor Fuentes looked up from his account books. "Doña!" he called. La Señor slowly turned her face toward him.
"What is it?"
"Por favor, Doña," Fuentes said, and then, in his halting English, "Where you are going?"
"Out. Out walking."
"Doña. It is late. Mañana, you walk. Now you eat, si? You have had nothing. You must eat."
"Lo siento, Señor. I am sorry. Gracias, but no."
Amazed at himself, Señor Fuentes felt his eyes fill like a woman's. "Doña," he whispered. "Yo comprendo. Tu amiga- -"
"Shh. Shh. Si. Mi amiga...." She came to him, reached out across the counter, lightly touched his face. Señor Fuentes jerked as if someone had plunged a needle deep into his cheekbone. La Señor smiled. "Tranquila, Señora. Mañana, all will be well. Truly."
He followed her to the door and watched her walk away, toward the beach. Her shoulders were huddled, as though the night were chill instead of warm and balmy. Almost, he raised a hand to stop her. Almost, he called out. But there was something so clean, so remote about the way the evening light fell on her shoulders that he shook his head and turned away.
Señor Fuentes waited up for a time before he went to bed, but he did not see La Señor return. The next day, in the late morning, he knocked at her door, hoping to entice her to take breakfast. There was no answer; letting himself in, he saw that the room was empty. Toward mid-afternoon, he knocked again, and again there was silence, again the door swung inward to a barren room. Then Señor Fuentes did something he had not done for a long time; he went down to the beach and stood looking out at the water.
A half dozen or so people lay sunning themselves on the sand, a few heads bobbed beyond the breakers. The sun blazed off the waves, dazzling his eyes; in the sky, slim, swift gulls dipped and soared. Far off on the horizon, the small dot of a steamer crept stolidly along, a thin ribbon of gray curling and twisting behind it. Señor Fuentes stood for some time, nodding his head, his hands shoved into his pockets.
When he returned to the hotel, he found his wife and told her to make up the woman's room for a new guest.
"She has left? Her case is still there."
"She is out walking."
"Then she has not left."
"She went walking on the hills. She will not be back."
Exasperated, Señora Fuentes put a plump fist on her hip. "Francisco," she said, "there are no hills around here. You are going loco, old man."
With his hands still in his pockets, Señor Fuentes stood in the middle of his lobby, staring at the painting La Señor had left for him one summer long ago. "Hills of bright water," he said softly. Suddenly he turned on his wife and, in his despair, he shouted, "Dios, woman! Can you not do as I say?"