That morning I woke up with a heavy head. The air was thick with smoke and blaring TV filled the cramped hotel room. I’d woken up earlier and turned the TV off, but Jack had turned it back on. Then I’d turned the volume down, and he’d turned it back up.
He was asleep again now, breathing through the side of his mouth; chalky and jagged breaths.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed, using my arms to push my body into a sitting position. Some muscle or soft tissue near my ribs had been injured so this was the least painful way to do it. As I had for the past few mornings, I looked down to survey the rest of the damage. Along my torso and hips and thighs were yellow and purple moons and half moons and red blood bruises like bite marks. Cuts and abrasions were scattered over my legs, arms, and hands. I reached for a pain pill and then sat there for a while, listening as Jack came to with a cough and a splutter. He groped for something, maybe the remote, then let his hand drop. I sighed. We were supposed to look at an apartment today. Bright and early, he’d said last night.
“We’ll get up, have breakfast, get right on it.”
“Whoa horsey,” I’d said, laughing. “Breakfast?”
I’d been with Jack for six months, and couldn’t remember seeing him eat a breakfast. In terms of solid food he tended to eat once a day, usually at night, and sometimes he forgot to do that.”
“Honey?” he said now. “Can I ask a favor?”
“Beer?” He groped around for his wallet, amongst the ash and papers and empty cans on the night-stand. “You don’t need to go all the way to OXXO, they have it across the street.”
A siren from the TV wailed. Gunfire. Screaming.
“Aw honey,” he said, when I came back with the beers. He lifted the corners of his eyes so his mouth sprung up into a little smile. Beads of sweat had gathered at his temples and raced down now, soaking the ends of his longish hair. I listened to the familiar ting and the gentle expulsion of air as his trembling fingers opened the can of Modelo.
“I think, uh, a Bloody Mary at Las Palmas after this. That’d go down well.”
“I used to drink them all the time. Good for you. Especially with the celery stick. ‘Course they don’t give you one of those here. But still.”
I gazed at the TV. The addition of a new type of drink to his daily routine was something I regarded with suspicion, almost as if he were having an affair.
“Are we going to look at the apartment today?” I asked.
“We could,” he said.
“The apartment in Buenos Aires.”
“Which is not in Argentina.”
“Which is not in Argentina…. Really? We will?”
“Yes,” he said. “We’ll look at the apartment.”
I clapped my hands and pulled him into a hug, wincing. “Uh, so – are you going to call him to say we’ll be late?”
He looked at the clock, then the ceiling. “Goddamn. Yeah. Just give me a minute. Goddamn.” He slouched back against the pillows.
“Don’t worry,” he said, taking another chug of beer. “I know you’re worried. We’ll go. OK?”
I got up and opened the brown louvered doors that covered the window. This not only revealed the dark hallway, but let some different air came into the room at least. Today the smell of Lemon Pledge nudged up against the mould.
“Honey,” he said. “Close that.”
“People can see in.”
“What are they going to see? Besides, I’m suffocating in here.”
“The cigarettes? That’s rich, coming from someone who smoked half of mine last night…. Hey dopey. Honestly. We don’t want people seeing in.”
I sighed, shut it.
More screaming people. Running out of a burning building.
Patches of the ceiling were flaking away and through the smoke and TV noise the room seemed to be throbbing slightly. I felt a wave go through me; one of those ones I had trouble arguing with.
“I’m falling apart,” I said.
He stroked my hair, exhaling.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll hold you together.”
* * *
Eventually I made it out to the lobby. Here there was sun at least, streaming through the windows and bouncing off the dirty tile floor. Covering one of the yellow walls was a map of Mexico with raised sections showing where the mountain ranges were. I put my laptop on the windowsill where I could tap into a wireless internet connection and went next door to Las Palmas to get a bar stool.
The waitress half turned around when I came in; yawned. She was leaning on the counter flipping through an issue of TV y Novelas, her skin-tight red dress hiked up, displaying a corner of faded blue underwear. I pointed at a stool and she nodded. I took the one Jack usually sat in, the one closest to the TV. He’d have to move another one over to that spot when he came in.
In the lobby I pulled the stool up to the windowsill and plugged in my laptop, wondering how many pages I could write before Jack rambled out, wearing yesterday’s shirt, putting on the Steve Madden sunglasses he’d found on some street corner, running his fingers through his hair – a grand wild man, with his grand wild aura of decline that was so intoxicating to me. I’d been hooked as soon as I saw him, stumbling ostentatiously in the late afternoon light of a different downtown bar.
“Be careful,” he’d told me as he pulled me over, almost spilling my drink. “This place beats you down. A lot of people get lost here.”
“Do they get lost here or do they come here because they’re already lost?”
“You pick,” he said. “Same result.”
We’d been at the hotel five days so far. We were staying there while Jack’s house was being rented, or until we found an apartment to rent downtown. Jack had a mansion, basically, south of Puerto Vallarta, in an area of mansions and infinity pools and tennis courts cut into the rock cliffs. He made money from renting the house to tourist groups. These had been scarce lately, but he was confident they were coming back.
“And when that happens,” he said, “it would actually be better to have a cheap apartment, rather than staying in a hotel all the time. Save on cab fares too, back and forth. Not to mention it would be better for us.”
I agreed with this. Cramped hotel room aside, I was pretty glad to be out of that big lonely house. I also liked being able to walk to the store or the taco stand or just to go outside and see people; have the odd conversation. Around Jack’s house there were just more big houses, most of which were unoccupied, and there was never anyone on the street. It was like a ghost town.
And then there was what had erupted the last night we were there. Both of us, I thought, were really going crazy in that house.
I surfed the web for a while, checked my emails. People a long way away were doing things and telling me about them. I couldn’t really relate to any of it. I fixed one of the terrible hotel coffees and opened up the file that contained my current writing project and started typing. At first it was bad but then I got into it, or thought I did – or more importantly perhaps I started to feel a bit better, sitting in front of the screen, overlooking the bright street.
“How’s it going?”
I jumped, looked up and saw Jack leaning over me.
“Oh – good, now. Considering.”
“Well, you know how to prevent a hangover.”
“Yeah. Bit hard to write drunk though.”
Back then I stuck as much as I could to my “no drinking before four p.m.” rule, and also told myself that I still recovered from hangovers pretty well. The alcohol helped, I believed. It cleared the day’s trash out of my head. It was also a necessity right now, I reasoned. I was aware that there was some fierce traumatic shock that was being slathered over with booze and painkillers and downers, and I needed it to stay slathered over.
“So are we going to…”
“Actually,” he said, straightening up. “I’m not feeling so well. Going next door for a bit.”
A fresh sweat had sprung up on his forehead and temples. I reached out and pushed a few strands of hair back behind his ears. The crinkled skin there had a yellow tinge that was noticeable in the daylight. I wondered whether that was normal. At that time I felt like I was discovering something new every day that made me ask: Is this it? Which health failure will be the one that takes him away from me?
I watched him move to the door and walk disjointedly past the window. He was all in blue; blue jeans and a light blue shirt under the clear blue sky.
* * *
A couple of hours later I poked my head in at Las Palmas. Jack was in his usual spot, watching World Series Poker.
“Where did you go?” he said.
“Nowhere. The lobby.”
“Honey, I’ve been waiting for us to go.”
“To the apartment?”
“Well – after this cocktail…. You want? Afternoon happy hour. Get a double.”
“Okay.” I had it in my head not to drink today before I managed to maneuver Jack over to the apartment, but I could feel some anxiety and foggy, yet specific, memories tugging at the edges of my consciousness, and I didn’t want that.
“Vodka soda coming up,” the waitress said.
I nodded, eyeing the brown innards of the icebox as she pulled it open. In the far corner of the room, two grizzled faces stared out onto the sun-drenched sidewalk.
“Line me up a shot too,” I said.
The waitress smirked, I didn’t know what at.
“It’s hot,” Jack said. “For March. Have you noticed it’s hot?”
I found this concerning since I thought it was still on the cool side. But then again I hadn’t been eating much either, and I was always cold when I didn’t eat.
“How are they today?” I said, picking up one of Jack’s hands and turning it over, running my finger along his palm.
“Hmm. It’s my feet that are worse. Although it’s better when I keep my socks on. That’s why I’ve been wearing them all the time, in case you were wondering. That seems to help. It’s numb up to the top of my foot now.”
“Getting worse quicker.”
“You know, since we’re downtown anyway, it would be easy for us to go to the doctor?”
“I don’t know if she’s still there. I’d have to find out.”
“Why don’t we do that? What’s her name?”
“I know what I have already. Same thing my father died from.”
I sighed. There were other things his symptoms could be indicative of, according to my Google searches. A lot of them were worse than diabetes though.
“So you know,” I said. “You still need to do something about it. Do you want to lose a foot or-”
“Now you’re just being dramatic.” He drained his vodka cranberry. He’d raised his voice momentarily and the waitress glanced up from her magazine, looking startled.
“I’ll be fine,” he lowered his voice again. “I always have been. I’m not a guy who gets sick. I’m not that guy…. Plus I’m not willing to change anything about the way I live, so what’s the point of finding out?
He held his glass up and the waitress reached over and took it, shuffled to the icebox.
“But you worry about it all the time.”
“No I don’t. You bug me about it all the time. It’s your fault.”
I made a pouty face and then smiled and rubbed him on the back, dropping the subject. I didn’t want him angry at me right now. Then we’d never see the apartment.
* * *
“So I think we get the bus somewhere around here….”
Some time in the late afternoon, we stumbled out of Las Palmas.
Jack came to a stop at the corner, squinted around. “It’s been a while. Goddamn it.”
“It’s hot. I thought it would have cooled down by now. But it’s just hotter. No – it’s the next block.”
We walked up there.
“There’s one now, that’s it, the number four.”
He motioned for me to get in ahead of him. We fell into the chairs as the bus swerved and rattled away.
“Ouch,” I said, as my bruises collided with the hard seat, and I waited for the stabbing in my ribs to subside.
“It just turned in the wrong direction,” Jack said. “Oh well – it’ll loop back around.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve lived here ten years, dopey,” he said. “What do you think?”
After winding around a few streets the bus turned again and headed back where it had just come from.
“This is right now,” Jack confirmed.
It took us by the river, across the highway and down a couple of blocks, to the river again. As it pulled away in a plume of orange-brown dust we stood on the road, blinking like newborns.
Next to a truck filled with watermelons, men were playing cards. Two boys were splashing in a fountain, shouting and pulling each other under the water. On the other side of the road was a hardware store with people sitting outside smoking and drinking beer. This was the neighbourhood known as Buenos Aires. I liked it immediately.
Jack took off his sunglasses, wiped his brow. Squinted. Put them back on.
“Goddamn. This heat.”
He reached into his pocket; pulled out some coins, a receipt, something else. “There’s a piece of paper…. Here it is. No, that’s a receipt. Uh. Right. This one.”
He held up a crumpled chewing gum wrapper.
“Can you read that honey?”
“Um. The ink has run? Cimchu? Chimchin? Chin chinny?”
I tweaked his.
“Hey. Stop that.”
“Let’s ask them,” I said, pointing to the men outside the hardware store.
I broke into a skip as we crossed the road.
“Sabe donde esta esta direction?” Jack’s slur became more pronounced when he tried to speak Spanish. He waved one hand around and teetered a bit.
The guy gazed at Jack. Then at the gum wrapper. He lifted his head as if to say okay? – and took it, handed it to the guy next to him. They conferred. Eventually the other guy pointed over Jack’s head, up the hill.
“How many rooms?” Jack asked. (“Cuartos” instead of “cuadras.”)
“Three blocks,” the guy said, in English. “Then turn right.”
Jack paused, hitching up his jeans.
“I’ve lost weight,” he said. “You notice that?”
“Camichin, here it is.” He examined the wrapper again. “So that’s what.” Then looked at the hill. “Ah shit. Goddamn.”
“It’s not that bad.”
He shook his head. “After you.”
On one side of the road a pair of detached arches opened onto a quadrangle. On the other side of this was a small flight of stairs and then a plaza with a concrete bandstand. Then more stairs, up to a large octagonal building with an overhanging roof and red metal beams.
Jack was behind me a way so I turned in to take a closer look at this building. Beyond a locked gate covered with chicken wire was a raised stage and pulpit with rows of plastic garden chairs fanned around it, and a statue of Jesus in a large seashell.
“Rose! Hey – Rose!” Jack’s voice had a snap to it, as though he were calling a dog. Sometimes he’d whistle as well.
“Where did you go?” he demanded, when I emerged back onto the road. “Didn’t you hear me call you?”
I laughed, squeezed him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, I heard you.”
“So why didn’t you reply? Like a normal person?”
“Such a pain in the ass,” he said. “You’re lucky to have me. No one else would put up with you. So dopey. Goddamn.” He stopped, wiped his brow and glared at me.
“Hey – maybe it’s that one right there,” I said quickly. “What was the number again? It is! And look it’s above an Abarrotes.” I’d always liked apartments that were above shops.
“Wait, wait up.”
Jack fished around in his pockets for a cigarette, breathing heavily.
“It’s got a balcony too,” I said. “Perfect, no?”
“Let’s see inside first.”
I traced one foot around in the dust while he finished his cigarette and then knocked on the door.
I stepped over some bushes and peered in the window. It was a room with a wooden bed and cupboard. Spare, but pleasant, and flooded with light.
He knocked again.
“Can you call him?”
I waited while he found his glasses, and then looked through the numbers on his phone. Pulled the gum wrapper out again.
“Oh, it must be on the other.”
“You don’t have his number?”
“I left it at the hotel, looks like,” he said. “But really honey.” He tugged at his jeans. “It’s too far out. Grocery shopping for example. And we’d have to get it all the way up the hill.”
“We were hardly on the bus any time. And it’s not a big hill.”
“It’s okay for you, you’re a pup, but for me – no.”
“You can take cabs! That’s what you do now anyway. And it’s much closer than the house. I’ll get the groceries. I’ll take the bus. I can carry stuff up the hill.”
“Yeah, I can see you doing that, in rainy season. You don’t understand. You haven’t been here long enough. This is just going to be too far out.”
“So, why did we come to see it then? We already knew where it was, pretty much. Why are we here?”
My voice was getting high-pitched; I felt suddenly sick and desperate at the prospect of going back to that big dark house.
“It’ll be good there now,” he said, as though reading my mind. “Nothing like that will ever happen again.” He touched the bruise on my cheek, sliding his hand off it like a paintbrush. “Things will be different.”
His words hung in the dry dusty air.
How? I wanted to ask, but didn’t.
He headed back down the hill. After a while I followed. At the bottom of the hill I turned and looked back. Watched the apartment disappear from view as we rounded the corner.