I sit hidden from the bright burning sun. I sit unhidden from the dark burning question. This is the question: Did I make it worse for her? When I left her alone at that blue line metro station last night, standing, alone, desperation in her eyes, I felt the ambiguity of my act. Making my way back to my Mexico City hotel room then, dizzy still from our encounter, its surprise, its intensity, I suffered the sharpest prick of doubt. This morning I rose to suffer it again, that doubt, that ambiguity, that question. From a short troubled sleep, I rose to it. Unrefreshed and haunted, I rose. And to leave Mexico City. But follow me, it did--that ambiguity, that doubt, that question. To Querétaro it followed me, through the business of resettlement, to this pedestrian lane, to this sidewalk cafe, to this small round table under this wicker awning. I will tell of it now. For like a poignant dream it hangs, there, over, around me--a specter, a ghost--that doubt, that ambiguity, that question: Did I make it worse for her?
Well-dressed. A small woman. Jet black hair. Her features were pleasant, but not pretty. She approached middle age with a modest build, with a well-attended build. She seemed the businesswoman, the bureaucrat. A VIPs, we stood in. I in line to pay for my breakfast. She unnoticed behind me until she spoke. She greeted me. She asked if I spoke English. We exchanged a handful of pleasantries. I paid my check and turned to leave. She gave to me the momentito sign with her thumb and forefinger. We met outside on the sidewalk, away from the restaurant crowd.
"I am trying to learn English," she began. "I study it much but I never have a chance to practice, you see."
Traffic briskly passed us on that shortcut between Insurgentes and La Reforma. A man shifted behind her buying a newspaper. The newsstand was awkwardly placed.
"I know the feeling," I replied. "I have struggled with this same problem in my studies of Spanish."
A gloss of conversation then. She was obviously trying to practice English. I had work to do, however, along Insurgentes. I offered, "If you want we can meet later this afternoon and converse for awhile. You can practice more English this way. Would you like to meet later?"
She would indeed.
We arranged a meeting place.
I shook her hand. I asked her name.
Maria was her name.
I noted the crucifix hanging from the chain around Maria's neck.
En route this morning to the Mexico City bus terminal I witnessed well-dressed tired-eyed Mexicans running through a metro correspondencia. Running. Running Mexicans at 6:30 a.m. Now I observe two Querétaro girls saunter through a colonial pedestrian lane. In their plaid skirts they saunter, comfortably they do, in the warm sun. The leather of an old woman's shoes squeaks as she treads by. And a shopkeeper sets out his signboard. Examenes de la vista, it adverts. And birdsong. After two weeks of Mexico City the elation I feel here in this tranquil spot, the relief I feel here in this tranquil spot might well be described as indescribable. Impeccable, Querétaro is--quiet. I've visited this city more than any other. My favorite. I can stroll this small picturesque centro in an hour or so, plaza by plaza, anticipating this statue, that fountain, this church, that way. A woman just greeted another woman lolling on this lane. They greeted one another familiarly. And earlier, on a busier street, I saw a man turn to greet someone in a doorway. Then he pivoted toward a second person who called to him from a sputtering truck. Then he acknowledged the raised hand of a third man across the busy street. That third man loped over the busy street then with a warm eagerness. The two men shook hands warmly. This is not Mexico City.
Maria stepped around the corner of Rio Mixcoac and San Angel with a deliberate clip to her stride. I was resting in the shade of a tall bank building, on its marble steps. I recognized her instantly, her smart black jacket over her fine white blouse, her fine white blouse tucked into her closely checkered black and white skirt, her skirt falling to just past her knees. She wore black hose, too, and expensive shoes. I stood. We shook hands.
"Do you want that we go to my house?" she panted quickly in Spanish.
And, "Sí. Está bien," I responded.
This was not what I had envisioned, but I trusted Maria. She seemed genuine beneath her edgy professionalism, vulnerable. One never suspects the vulnerable.
"We'll take a taxi," she declared.
Momentarily she perched on the curb then, lifting her arm. Aboard, we climbed, tumbling onto the backseat of the green and white Volkswagen, gripping at the armrests as it jerked into traffic.
"And so how was your business," I asked.
She showed to me a brochure. The brochure was for a liquor company based in Morelos. The liquor company had just offered her a job as salesperson.
"And for you," she asked then. "And how was for you your work."
I told her it had gone swimmingly, that I had finished much earlier than expected. We attempted more small talk then. The roar of the street, however, made it impossible for me to follow her Spanish. We sat wordlessly, thus, uneasily, for most of the drive.
The taxi lurched onto a gated driveway. Maria waved at a uniformed man. The gate opened. Maria paid the expensive cab fare. Then she led me up a flight of steps. Then she rolled a long key in a dead bolt. Maria's apartment was small but comfortable. As soon as Maria entered it her edgy professionalism eased, her vulnerability broadened. I noticed this. I drifted to the window. The view was expansive--the city, the mountains.
A young man with longish hair stops before this cafe now, mid-stride, and chuckles. He beholds a great Hispanic beauty reposed within it, a true Dulcinea. The Dulcinea recognizes the young man. She chuckles in her turn. Her hand rises unconsciously to her bare and elegant neck. They smile. The young man greets an old man who idles with the Dulcinea. Respectfully he greets the old man. Then, in a friendly way, he invites the Dulcinea to accompany him to a French movie showing Sunday. For some reason the Dulcinea cannot accompany him. The Dulcinea invites the young man to telephone her, however. He agrees. The young man shakes the hand of the old man then. And then the young man departs. The old man makes some parting remarks of his own then. Then he stands. Then he kisses the cheek of the Dulcinea. Then he departs.
A bell chimes in the distance.
A beggar sits resting to my left.
Maria invited me into her apartment. Maria took me into her apartment. Maria conversed with me alone in her apartment on her sofa. Were I a Mexican man I would interpret this unmistakably as an invitation to sex. But I am not a Mexican man. Maria knew this--that I was not a Mexican man. Not every approach is an overture.
Maria offered a tequila. I declined.
Maria offered a beer. I accepted.
As she sought and opened the bottle of beer in the kitchen I heard her quietly utter something about trusting people, about how difficult it is to find people to trust. She placed the beer on the coffee table before me. She plumped down near me on her plush sofa. Maria leaned over the English book open in my lap. Maria stroked the pages as she leafed them, as we talked haltingly, in Spanish. My right leg twitched under the pages Maria stroked. My pulse excited. I looked to her.
A desperation sharpened Maria's look.
A sadness heavied Maria's look.
Maria said, "Mexican girls are raised from childhood to look for and believe in meeting one man and marrying him and being with him forever. It is a beautiful idea. My parents did it. I remember them fighting over him going with this girl once; over him going with that girl. But always my mother stayed with him. When he died they were still together. It makes it very difficult--It is very hard to accept it when it does not work out for some reason--If you do not stay together. It feels like failure."
I asked if she were married.
"More or less," she said. "We do not have a good relationship."
Neither of us were paying attention to the English book. It was now just a prop. I closed it. I lay it on the coffee table. I took the bottle of beer. I leaned back into the sofa. I did not drink from the bottle of beer.
"I had a good job in Morelia," Maria continued. "I was a buyer for a large department store. I had my little career. I was very happy. He convinced me to come here. We came. With our daughter. She is in school here and she likes it. She wants to be a lawyer. She wants to stay now. It's very hard because we women are raised for one man. But the men, they change."
Here Maria's eyes welled with tears. She did not, however, let them fall.
"The men, they see someone in the street and they want to go with them and suddenly they leave you. It is very difficult."
The tears receded. Maria was flushed.
"He supports us economically."
Maria glanced away.
I looked at her. She struck me suddenly as pretty.
The stones of this lane bask in the sunshine. Still the sounds of happily chatting girls linger. And the crooning of a famous balladeer mists from the cafe's open doorway. Only my round sidewalk table is occupied now. In another hour or so I will seek a menu of the day at some restaurant nearby. Earlier I ambled by a favorite restaurant of mine from a previous trip. I dined in that restaurant with Sandra once. She was beautiful in that restaurant. It is now a cake shop. I will find another restaurant. Many purple flowers deck this walk. And antique lamps. And before I seated myself here I saw a yellow and black butterfly as big as my open hand flutter unnoticed between a pair of businessmen and a pair of lovers.
Topics changed and changed again as we conversed. Finally, I mentioned my rash.
"Yes, I saw it," Maria said.
"I'm allergic, I think, to my laundry detergent. I have this cream for the itching. It does not really work." From the bag at my feet I pulled my ointment.
Maria took the tube of ointment from me. She studied the label. Maria rose abruptly then to disappear into the bathroom. She returned with a second tube, a white tube. She told me it was hydrocortisone. She told me it would help.
She asked, "How often do you wash?"
"Every night, but I only have four changes of clothes on this trip."
"It's too bad that we met this late. I could have helped you. I could have washed your clothes for you."
I looked at Maria intently. I said nothing.
"Do you want that I put this ointment on your hands for you?"
Very slowly, I nodded.
And very slowly Maria began to very gently dab the white lenitive onto the red circular spots that covered my hands and wrists. She was very gentle in the act, nurturing. "Thank you," I finally murmured.
And followed then a long silence.
Another topic arose, changed, and changed again.
I found myself explaining suddenly how I have decided not to seek an intimate until I settle down. How I think all the traveling and moving about will make the settling and companionship just that much sweeter. I found myself telling Maria how I have no intimate in my life, how lonely I feel sometimes because of it, but how loneliness is the only price I pay for my lifestyle, my only cross to bear.
"Solito," was the word I used for lonely.
"Solita," Maria repeated back to me. She gave the word the feminine form when she repeated it back to me. "We are very much alike," she said.
And Maria's lips moved to speak again. But I moved and stopped Maria's lips. I kissed her.
Twice in Mexico City I had students of English approach and interview me for their classes. Where are you from? they ask. What Mexican food do you like? They ask. Have you visited Garibaldi square? Basic stuff. The first was a timid young man with short wavy hair outside the anthropological museum. I was munching carrots, lunching on a big rock, pondering the long line to the old master's exhibit. He had a list of questions. He penciled in what he understood of my replies. The second was a group of five students. They converged on me in the Zócalo with a tape recorder. I understood them all quite well except for the girl who questioned me last. She kept asking if I had a mascot. Do you have a mascot? What? Do you have a mascot? What? Finally I remembered that the word for "pet" in Spanish is "mascota." Oh! said I. Do I have a pet? No. No, I do not have a pet. But my sister has a dog named Rumpus.
"To my bed," Maria said.
Maria said, "Let me lock the door."
Then, we kissing, embracing in the middle of the living room,
"I have to ask," Maria asked. "Do you want to use prevention?"
I had never heard a condom called "prevention."
Maria repeated her question.
Still I did not understand.
"A condom," Maria stated then shortly.
"Yes," I answered. "Of course." But I did not have a condom. But Maria had a condom. And I was sitting on her bed then watching her undress herself impatiently. And she was impatiently then helping me undress myself.
Little foreplay. Our foreplay had been our dithering on the sofa, our waiting for me to act.
"What a surprise," I said.
"Faster, faster," she commanded.
"I have to go slowly," I said. "It's been over a year for me."
I asked, "Did you have this in mind from the beginning?"
"From the moment you entered the restaurant."
She said, "How you enchant me!"
"How pretty you are," I said.
"How old are you," I asked, to watch Maria's eyes suddenly panic, to call myself silently an ass.
"How old are you?" I asked again.
I guessed the oldest Maria might be and subtracted five years.
"Thirty-five," I said.
"Thirty-six," she answered, grinning, her eyes rolling back in her head.
"Have you done this with many men?"
"I've never brought someone here with me."
"Do you want me to come?"
"Not yet. I want to feel you still."
"I'm going to come."
It was not until afterward that she understood I was leaving at six o'clock this morning. When I told her six in our conversations, she thought I meant six o'clock this evening. She expected us to spend today together.
"I want to be with you," she said.
"For this reason I avoid these situations," I answered. "Because I am always leaving." And I could see now that fierce desperation in her eyes.
Maria was a lonely woman. By her own confession Maria felt abandoned, a failure. And this, you know, is the source of my prick of doubt, of that haunting ambiguity, of my plaguing question. Did I make it worse for her? Maria was suffering. For those few torrid minutes with me Maria was not suffering. But was that ephemeral relief a good thing? Did that encounter soothe Maria or only heighten her subsequent pain? The look in Maria's eyes when I left her alone at the metro station was not a content one. It was a desperate one. A look just as desperate as when she spoke to me of her sorrows. Maria needed more than an amorous encounter, I think. Maria needed a paramour, a lover, or, her husband. I don't know. I meant no harm. I think probably the only thing worse though than sleeping with Maria would have been not to sleep with Maria.
Three French-speaking people just took a table inside this cafe. They ordered cappuccinos. I am sitting "a soleil" if I understood the man correctly. If I leave the cafe now and wander a bit through the plazas it should be just time for the afternoon meal. My hotel is nice. My room is quietly off the street. My windows open onto the hotel's bougainvillea draped courtyard. Spanish-Moorish arches frame the courtyard. Red flowers dangle in it from hanging pots. This is the most I have yet paid for lodgings. Still it is less than I budgeted. Tomorrow I work, I guess.
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