Carl could see the sign on the other side of the pool warning him to resist the temptation. So far, there had been no iguanas—only diminutive brown lizards that skittered along walls and across walkways—but the size of the sign and the emphatic capital letters led him to believe that the owners of the resort considered it a serious problem. There were other signs around the property—Please Don’t Pick The Flowers Thank You! Please Stay On The Sidewalk Thank You!—but they seemed less like a commandment and violating them less likely to get you kicked out of paradise.
Carl was the only one at the pool. Everyone else was near the water, frolicking. Yesterday, their first day in Mexico, Carl had burned his feet on the hot sand and woke this morning with blisters. He told his wife walking was painful and he was going to skip the beach.
“It’s because you have baby feet,” Jane said, “and that’s your mother’s fault.” Jane often blamed Carl’s mother for Carl’s shortcomings, not always fairly, but, in this case, she was right. Carl did have baby feet, pink and tender and soft, and it was because his mother had insisted he always wear shoes and socks. Going barefoot, she told him, was dangerous. He might step on a rusty nail, get lockjaw, and die with a grimace on his face. Or he might pick up a parasite that would bore into the bottom of his foot, lay its eggs in his large intestine and liquify his insides. Peril was abundant, kept at by sturdy footwear.
Carl smeared his feet with lotion Jane said would be soothing, pulled on a pair of white cotton socks and slid his feet gingerly into rubber sandals. After lunch and after Jane left for the beach, he winced his way poolside and settled on a chaise next to the shallow end where he was shaded by palm trees with broad fronds that rattled in the wind. From here, he could see the top of the stone stairs that led down to the ocean. An occasional beach ball arced across the clear blue sky, laughter and shouting, muffled by the breeze and distance, floated his way, more white noise than annoyance. He closed his eyes and realized he could be anywhere right now. The long plane ride from Chicago, the chaos of the Cancun airport, the cramped shuttle ride to Puerto Morales, all that had happened, including the scorching of his feet, ended with him drowsing in humid, tropical air and nothing more.
This trip had been Jane’s idea. In August, after their son’s wedding, she suggested they go the following February and showed him on the website for this place how reasonably they could rent a two-bedroom condo. It would be more than a vacation she told him. It would be a journey into the future, a glimpse of what life might be when they both retired.
“It’s so much cheaper to live in Mexico,” she said. “And an adventure.”
Carl, who had spent more than 20 years in risk assessment, was not compelled by adventure. When he thought of Mexico, he thought of drug lords, kidnappings and beheadings. He saw his lifeless body thrown from a dusty car and left to putrefy in the desert. He could not picture himself ever feeling comfortable in a country so rife with danger and mystery. Nor did his vision of retirement involve learning a new language or strange currency. Instead, he saw himself enjoying a morning spent reading the newspaper, walks along well-groomed paths in the woods, as-yet-unborn grandchildren staying overnight, slow meanders down grocery store aisles pushing a wobbly wheeled cart.
Carl felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes. He must have fallen asleep because he hadn’t heard Jane’s approach or, apparently, her talking to him.
“Did you hear anything I said?”
“No, sorry. I was dreaming I was taking a nap at home.” He shaded his eyes and squinted up at her. She was wearing a new swimsuit and had turned her towel into a sarong. She was carrying her sandals and a canvas bag where she kept sunscreen and a straw hat that could be folded up. Her sunglasses were perched on top of her head. Her skin glowed from the sun.
“I wish you’d try to enjoy this trip,” Jane said.
“I am enjoying it,” Carl said. “It’s peaceful here. I have a book. Nobody’s bothering me.”
Jane shook her head and looked back toward the ocean.
“So what did you say to me that I didn’t hear?”
Jane dropped her sandals, then bent to slide them on.
“I was telling you that I met a very nice couple from California and that they’ll be here in a few minutes. I’m going to go change, and then Talia is taking me to a shop just down the street. I want to get something for the kids’ apartment. Philip’s staying with you.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, for one thing, I don’t feel like having company, especially when I don’t know the
“You’ll be fine.” Jane walked past Carl’s chair and patted his shoulder. “They might get here before I’m ready, so be pleasant.”
Talia, Carl thought, what kind of name was that? He imagined a big woman wrapped in diaphanous scarves and given to serious monologues on topics no one cared about. He imagined her hair was long and wildly unkempt and that when she spoke, she made sweeping gestures. Philip would probably be wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts and a dopey smile.
A handful of people came up the steps from the beach, headed toward the condominiums. Carl had been introduced to some of them yesterday, but he could not recall any names. They said hello, asked about his feet. Some carried snorkels and fins, others had bags like the one Jane used. They were sunburned and smiling, languorous and content. Most of them were short-term tenants who leased a place for two or three months at a time, but some owned their units and spent a better part of the year here. Last night, while Carl was laid up and unable to walk, Jane went out for a glass of wine with three women who had been coming to Puerto Morelos for more than a decade. They had met in college and kept in touch. Two were now widowers, and one was divorced. It was after their spouses were gone that they decided to travel together.
“Statistically, you’ll outlive me,” Carl had said when Jane told him about the women. “Maybe they’ll let you tag along.”
“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” she said and went to bed, leaving him alone with his throbbing feet.
A man appeared between two of the buildings that curved in a horseshoe around the pool. Despite the heat, he was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, both pale green, and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. He pushed an upright cart bristling with brooms and pool skimmers, hoses and garden tools. When he passed. Carl gave him a wave and muttered what he hoped sounded like “buenos dias,” but the man gave no indication that he had heard. At the end of the pool, he removed a ribbed hose attached to what looked like a vacuum cleaner head and, kneeling, plugged it into an unseen underwater connection of some kind. Standing again, he steered the apparatus back and forth across the pool.
“There they are!”
Jane was beside him, waving. She had changed into a striped dress he had never seen before. He got to his feet deliberately and saw a man and a woman walking their way. They looked nothing like he had imagined them. Instead of being dumpy and disheveled, they seemed dignified. Both were tall and slender. Talia had her hair pulled back and wore enormous sunglasses. Philip’s hair and beard were snow-white, neatly trimmed. Both were dressed in what looked to Carl to be expensive loose outfits—linen, probably—and both were barefoot. Carl wondered what they would make of his socks and rubber sandals, wrinkled shirt and shorts pulled from a still-unpacked suitcase.
“I’m so glad this worked out,” Talia said, wrapping June in a hug and then stepping back to look in Carl’s direction.
“This is Carl,” Jane said.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your feet,” Talia said, putting a hand on his forearm. “It must be painful.”
“It’s my own fault. I should have known better.”
“We’ll have drinks later. A margarita or two will make you forget all about it.” Talia gestured toward her companion. “And this is my husband, Philip.”
Carl put out his right hand. Philip took it awkwardly in his left and squeezed.
“A pleasure,” he said, his words slow and slurred.
“Well,” Talia said to Jane, “shall we go?”
Jane smiled at Carl. “We won’t be long.”
Talia hooked Jane’s arm and led her away. Carl continued to look in the direction they had gone even after they were out of sight, hoping when he turned around Philip would be heading back to the beach, as uneasy with this forced camaraderie as he was. But Philip was still there, tall and unmoving, a statue. He looked at Carl and smiled.
“Let me get you a place to sit,” Carl said. He pulled a straight-backed deck chair into the shade next to his chaise. Philip took a tentative step toward the chair and then leaned forward, reached out with his left hand and took hold of the arm. With great difficulty, he shuffled to the front of the chair, pivoted awkwardly, and lowered himself. Carl watched the whole ordeal, realizing when it was too late that he should have helped. Philip pulled his right hand onto his lap with his left and sat rigidly.
“This is nice,” he said.
“Can I get you a beer? I have a couple of bottles of local stuff the resort gave us. I have no idea how good it is, but it’s cold.”
Carl started quickly toward the condo, then pulled up in pain. He set out again, more slowly, ignoring the request that he stay on the walkway because the lawn was more forgiving, even if it was forbidden. From the window over the sink, Carl could Philip from the back, the only thing moving was his white hair in the breeze. Carl considered Philip’s garbled speech and his unsteadiness and wondered if he should ask what was wrong with him. He was never good around people with obvious physical problems—a stunted limb, a jaw carved away by cancer, a crooked spine–especially if those people chose to ignore their flaws and trusted that everyone else would do the same. His curiosity was blunt and conspicuous, never malicious but often intrusive and, to Jane, humiliating. He suspected she was worrying right now, as she wandered a shop festooned with brightly painted trinkets, feathered earrings, clay pots and hand-carved soapstone deities, that he was tormenting Philip with questions. He decided not to take any chances. If he offended Philip, they would be stuck there in silence, just the two of them with no chance for escape, until their wives rescued them.
When Carl returned with the beer, Philip held out his left hand to take the bottle. Carl dragged a wrought iron table between the two chairs and sat on the edge of the chaise, facing Philip. He took a long drink, trying to come up with something inoffensive to say.
“Not half bad.” He tapped the bottle with a finger. “I might need to get some more.”
Philip lifted his bottle and aimed it at his mouth, spilling a little on his shirt. As he swallowed, his right hand started to shake.
“Pretty good,” he said. He tried to put the bottle on the table, but he could not reach. Carl took it from him and set down both bottles.
“Thanks. I have trouble doing things.” He touched the side of his head. “My brain.”
Every word, Carl thought, was an effort, a contortion, the rubbery mouth of a drunk.
“I know what you mean,” he said.
They sat then, drinking, not talking. Sounds from the beach reached them. Farther out, over the water, a helicopter went past, circled and went back in the direction it had come. Near the condos, a few of the people who had greeted Carl earlier, met under a shaggy palapa carrying pitchers and glasses. They brought music with them, too, and talked loudly to be heard over it, but Carl could not understand anything they said.
The man who had been cleaning the pool and was now trimming bushes began to shout. He trotted toward a hedge on the other side of the NO FEEDING sign, brandishing his clippers like a sword. Carl could not see at first what was agitating the man, but then there it was: an iguana paddling slowly and clumsily toward the pool. Probably five feet long with spikes running the green length of its body, it turned its head toward the shouting man and froze. The man stopped, too, but continued to scold the animal, stamping his feet and pumping his arms. Finally, the iguana turned itself around and crawled into the hedge, only its striped tail still visible.
“That was something,” Carl said. “I didn’t know they could get that big.”
Philip reached toward the table with his bottle. Carl took it from him and set it down. He finished his own and put it next to Philip’s.
“Wish I had another to offer you,” he said.
“One’s enough. Margaritas soon.” Philip slumped a bit and his eyes closed. Within a few seconds, he was asleep—or at least appeared to be. Carl lay back on the chaise. The music and laughter continued. Overhead, the palm fronds kept up their clatter and beyond clouds scudded across the bright blue sky. He had to admit this was a lovely place, and he could see why Philip and the others were so taken with it, but he was suspicious of anything that appeared ideal because nothing ever was. Uncertainty lurked. Whether as pernicious as a heart attack or as benign as running out of gas, factors beyond knowing can throw life into a tizzy. Carl understood this because it was what he did. His job was to anticipate the chances of things going awry, to see peril looming and, if not prevent it, at least prepare for it.
The man in green loaded his cart and wheeled it back between the buildings. Jane and Talia met him. They veered around as he went to other side of the pool.
“How was shopping?” Carl asked. “Any luck?”
Jane held out a plastic bag. “I got a couple of things for Alan and Kim, and some jewelry for me. I found some salve for your feet, too.” She reached into the bag and took out a tube she handed to him. He looked at the label, which was in Spanish and inscrutable.
“Who’s up for a margarita?” Talia said. She had roused Philip, who blinked and looked around, getting his bearings. “There’s a wonderful beach bar with live music just over there.” She pointed in a general direction. “Carl, are you able to walk that far?”
“I think so.”
“Should we go?” Talia said, clapping her hands. She hooked Jane’s arm and the two of them marched off toward the stone stairs down to the beach. Carl watched them go. Philip struggled to get out of his chair, then wobbled a bit when he was on his feet.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“I believe so.” Philip started off after the two women, and Carl noticed the stiffness and uncertainty in his gait. He walked erectly—too erectly—and kept his arms stiff at his sides. Carl followed him down the stairway and then fell in next to him. Up ahead Jane and Talia veered left and disappeared into a crowd of people holding drinks.
“I think they’re trying to ditch us,” Carl said.
“Yes. I think so..”
By the time Carl and Philip found them, their wives were sitting at a table under a thatched roof, and a young man stood next to them, writing on a notepad.
“I ordered blood orange margaritas for all of us,” Talia said, “and octopus carpaccio.”
“I’ve never had either one,” Jane said. “I’ll trust you.”
Philip pulled at a chair but could not budge it in the sand. Carl helped him and then sat down across the table from him, next to Jane, his back to the sea.
Although neither Talia nor Philip looked the way Carl thought they would, Talia was as garrulous as he had imagined, holding forth on a wide variety of subjects. She talked about Puerto Morelos and the Mayans who lived there, and about her sister’s troubled husband. There seemed to be no common thread tying an anecdote about goat cheese to a longer, confused recollection of a car trip somewhere, but Talia seemed fueled more by manic energy than logic. After a third blood orange margarita was set on the table in front of him, Carl found himself tuning out the woman’s monologue and watching Philip, instead. There was definitely something seriously wrong with the man. Only his left arm worked, apparently, and when he picked up his glass, his right hand shook, just as it had with the beer bottle earlier. Whenever Talia interrupted herself and looked to him for corroboration, he would turn his body and agree, then turn back and look out at the water again.
“Carl?” Jane had her head tipped and was frowning at him. “Would you like to go to dinner with Talia and Philip?”
The young man who had served them their drinks came to the table and took away their glasses. He had only three fingers on one of his hands, Carl noticed.
“Carl?” Jane’s frown deepened.
“Sure. Of course. I’m up for anything.”
“But we should go to the condo first and put some ointment on your feet”
“We won’t be long,” Jane said, wiggling her chair back in the sand and standing. Carl did the same. “Should we meet you here?”
“Perfect. See you soon.”
Jane took Carl’s hand and led him away from the bar and onto the open beach. She was clearly perturbed, but after three margaritas, Carl had lost the ability to figure out what he had done. That did not excuse him, however, from trying. Not doing so would be worse than being wrong.
“She’s a talker, isn’t she?” he finally said. “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
“Like you tried.” Jane dropped his hand and picked up speed. Carl’s rubber sandals acted like shovels scooping sand as he attempted to catch up to her.
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Listen, for one thing. Talia asked you questions twice, and all you did was smile and nod your head.”
“I was talking to Philip.”
Jane stopped and turned. Carl stopped, too.
“You never said one word to Philip. You just stared at him.”
“I know. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with him since we were at the pool. Do you know? Did he have a stroke?”
“No. He has a terminal condition. Part of his brain is shrinking. Talia told me the name for it, but I forget.”
When they got to the condo, Carl sat on the couch and peeled off the white socks. His feet were seared red, and when he pushed on one of the watery blisters, he felt a sting. Jane applied ointment and helped him get into a clean pair of socks.
“Why are they here if he’s dying?” Carl asked. “I’d want to be at home.”
“He wanted to come here before he gets worse and can’t travel anymore.”
“I’ll be glad when dinner is over, and we get back here, just the two of us. I don’t think I can spend any more time with him.”
“Well, you’re spending tomorrow morning with him. Talia said she would take me snorkeling if Philip had somebody to watch him, and you agreed.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Talia asked you, and you smiled and nodded.”
By the time they got back to the bar, the sun was starting to set, and Carl felt drained. The margarita buzz was wearing off, leaving in its place a fogginess that was almost painful. He was matched up again with Philip as they walked along the beach into town to a restaurant Talia assured them had the best fried fish anywhere.
“You guys have been down here for a while?” Carl asked.
They trudged through the fine sand, trailing Talia and Jane, and Carl looked out at the water. A few boats bobbed near the reef, which meant divers were still at it. Beyond the reef, where the water turned from azure to a deeper blue, a trio of cruise ships caravaned in the direction of Playa del Carmen.
“This is beautiful,” Carl said.
“It’s my favorite place in the world.” Philip turned his head as he spoke and stumbled a bit. Carl caught him by the arm, kept him upright.
The women had reached the restaurant, which was open to the sea air, and were waiting at the head of a short flight of stairs. Carl followed as Philip climbed the steps to meet them. He kept his hand close to the man’s back until they reached the top.
“I’m going to get us a table,” Talia said. She hurried off, waving at a man in a white suit who stood near the bar. Given that the restaurant was nearly full, Carl imagined them sitting next to the kitchen, too wary of swinging doors and servers balancing trays to enjoy their meal. He watched Talia and the man in the white suit as they talked. She gestured toward the water, then squeezed his arm. He nodded and she headed back to where the rest of them were waiting.
“Miguel is going to hurry along that group near the front, so we’ll have a nice breeze.”
“He’s going to kick those people out?” Carl asked. He saw the man in the white suit make his way through the restaurant.
“Oh, it’s nothing. They finished eating a long time ago, but they’ll stay there until someone else wants the table. It’s how things are done here.”
Maybe so, Carl said to himself, but when the people stood up to leave, they leaned toward each other, whispering, and glared in his direction. If Talia saw their displeasure, she ignored it, leading Jane by the arm and leaving him and Philip to follow.
When they were settled, Carl had to admit that this was a spectacular place to have a meal. The sun was all but down, and the sea was slate gray, except for a thin white ridge of waves breaking on the reef. A half-moon glowed dimly above the horizon.
“Isn’t this heavenly!” Talia said. When their waiter appeared, she ordered a bottle of wine and octopus carpaccio again for the table. She and Jane then began to talk about the snorkeling excursion they would take in the morning. Philip, who was across the table from Carl, seemed to take no notice of the conversation. He sat quietly—serenely, Carl thought—and stared off into space. What was he thinking about? The ocean? Food? Death? More importantly, what would they talk about tomorrow? If today was any indication, there would not be much talking at all. Carl saw the two of them perched side-by-side in lawn chairs, inert, out of place and pathetic.
The waiter appeared with the wine and the octopus, and Talia ordered fish for the table. Her presumptuous command of their little group nettled Carl. He took a long swallow of wine, chewed on a piece of spongy octopus and listened as she described encountering a stingray the last time she snorkeled. She was moving her hand around emulating the animal’s undulations when Carl interrupted her.
“You don’t have to be a strong swimmer to snorkel, do you?” he asked. Talia seemed taken aback at having had her story cut short, but she gave Carl a tight smile and told him no.
“You wear a flotation device,” she explained, “and there’s always a guide with you.”
“I think I’d like to try it, too. Would that work? Would there be room for Philip and me on the boat?”
“Philip couldn’t go. If you don’t go into the water, you can’t be on the boat.”
“You go,” Philip said to Carl.
“Are you sure? I’d hate for you to be all alone.”
Carl looked at Talia and Jane. Jane was glaring. Talia had a stunned look.
“Is there room for me?”
“I think so,” Talia said.
An icy stillness fell over the table. Jane and Talia looked down at their plates and picked at slices of octopus. Rather than feeling relief at having extricated himself from a potentially uncomfortable situation tomorrow, Carl realized he had made tonight worse. He drank his wine quickly and refilled his glass before anyone else had finished, then attempted to undo the silence he had created.
“How long has Philip’s brain thing been going on? It’s not common, is it?”
Talia’s eyes widened. Under the table, Jane poked him with something sharp.
“Almost four years,” Philip said slowly, purposefully.
“That’s a long time.”
“I can only imagine. But you’re managing, and that’s a good thing.”
Carl wanted to ask what it was like to feel your life getting smaller, but their waiter appeared with a platter of fish, and Talia regained control of the conversation. She steered them through to the end of the meal and back down to the beach where they said good night and went in opposite directions.
“You’re unbelievable,” Jane said, once they were clearly out of earshot. “What is wrong with you?”
“What? Talia was driving me crazy.”
“I don’t know why.”
“Because she keeps dumping Philip off on me so you two can go off and enjoy yourselves.”
“Aren’t you being a bit inconsiderate? His life can’t be easy.”
“I’m sure it’s not easy, but why am I the one who has to babysit? I’m on vacation, too. This is not what I expected to be doing, and I’m not happy about it.”
Jane stopped and pulled him around to face her. “You’re not going snorkeling tomorrow, are you?”
“Of course not. Salt water and blisters?”
“And you won’t be doing anything with Philip.”
“No. Didn’t I just say that? What am I supposed to do with him? I can’t figure out how to talk to him. I’m torturing him whenever I ask him a question. You saw how hard it was for him to try to say something. He’s wobbly on his feet, so where—”
“Enough,” Jane said. “I’ve got nothing more to say to you except I’m embarrassed.”
When they got to their condominium, Jane went straight to bed, but Carl poured himself a glass of wine—his fourth, maybe fifth of the evening—and dropped into an overstuffed chair. Maybe, he thought, Jane was right. Maybe he had been inconsiderate, but it’s easy to be critical when you aren’t the one put upon. Jane could say whatever she wanted, call him whatever she wanted to call him, it would not change his mind. Talia’s need to be in charge of everything proved to be a challenge, but Philip was beyond a challenge. He was an ordeal. He was a punishment. And what had he, Carl, done to deserve punishment? He fell asleep in the chair still mulling over his misfortune. He was in the chair the next morning with the surprisingly unspilled, half-filled glass propped between his legs when Jane shook him awake.
Not much was said as Jane got ready to leave to meet Talia. She was still angry, of course, probably even more so given Carl’s bleary-eyed condition. He made no attempt to talk, knowing that the pain in his head would be exacerbated by any kind of movement, even jaws and tongue.
“I’ll see you after lunch,” Jane told him on her way out. “Look in the fridge if you get hungry.”
Carl took some aspirin and a shower, neither of which did much to alleviate the thumping in his skull. He wished he had been coherent enough to apologize to Jane for what happened last night, but, in truth, he still did not think he would have done anything any differently, other than be less clumsy at it. Philip was not his responsibility and there was no way they would ever be friends. How would that happen, anyway? The only thing they had in common was being stuck with each other.
After rubbing his feet with ointment and putting on a pair of clean white socks, Carl poured himself a cup of coffee, took an orange from the refrigerator, slipped into his rubber sandals, picked up his book, and went out to the pool. No one else was there, of course, though he could hear voices and laughter coming up from the beach. He stretched out on the chaise, peeled and ate the orange, and drank the coffee. The man who cleaned the pool appeared just as he had yesterday. To make sure that the man did not feel obligated to clean up after him or think him a slob, Carl made sure that he put the coffee cup and the pieces of rind on the table next to his lounger. He opened his book and read less than a page before falling asleep.
Carl dreamed. He dreamed he was trying to run in fine white sand but he was buried up to his ankles in the stuff. Then he saw Philip and Talia and Jane. They were far ahead of him, moving easily down the beach, oblivious to him and his plight. He tried to call to them, but he could not form words and managed only a garbled howl. He looked at the sea and realized the tide was coming in fast, and he could not pull his feet free. The waves washing onto the shore and around his ankles, his calves, then his knees, were like the swish of a broom. As the water rose higher, the sound grew louder. He jerked awake before he drowned, but the rustling persisted, getting closer and closer until it was right next to him. The table rattled, and his coffee cup fell off. It landed on the tiled pool deck and shattered.
Carl rolled his head toward the sound, expecting to see the maintenance man in his pale green uniform and wondering how to say sorry in Spanish. Instead, he found himself face-to-face with the very large iguana from yesterday. It had a piece of Carl’s orange peel in its mouth. Carl held his breath and did not move. The iguana fixed him with the cold bead of its eye and did not blink.
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