Hungers excerpt -- from "Los Desesperados"
© Genni Gunn, 2002
Reprinted by permission. All Rights Reserved
By the time the plane lands in Puerto Vallarta, both Alice and Morris are drunk. The four scotches, Alice reasons, were necessary to dispel anxiety. Better than sedatives — you get addicted to those. Morris has gone one further. He averts his eyes, but she can see the beginnings of a conscience in the red rings, the shiny pupils.
“We're here, honey,” she says and forces a smile. “I wonder if it's changed much.”
“Most likely turned into another American tourist trap.” Morris stares, gloomy, out the window, as if reluctant to disembark. Deplane, as the flight attendants say. Always makes Alice think of Jonah and the whale. Open the fangs; spit them out. And before they know it, they're in a taxi, heading for . . . what . . . a honeymoon twelve years ago?
“Estancia San Paolo,” Morris tells the driver.
“Is new, senor? You know what street?”
Morris hands him an address. The cabbie shrugs and drives. Puerto Vallarta has certainly changed since they were here last. It is now a maze of shops along the cobblestones, advertisements in English. It could be southern California, only the air is more humid, the heat sticky. Everyone's on holiday here, Alice thinks, it's not real. She knows that's not true, of course. There's an industry keeping all these tourists fed and watered and sheltered and amused. Like marriages, she thinks. There are tourists even there. She stares out the window, reads signs: COTTON CANDY, DANONE YOGHURT, PERRIER. WE VACUUM-PACK FISH FOR AIR TRAVEL. CALIFORNIA SUN, LE CHATEAU BLANC, MAMMA'S PIZZERIA, EMPRESS OF THE EAST, KATAI SUSHI. Make it all feel like home. Alien, untrue.
Then, they cross into old Puerto Vallarta. Alice takes a deep breath. April is perfumed with familiarity: she and Morris arriving here twelve years ago. They've been married one day, and touch is so exquisite it hurts. His hands brush her arm, her shoulder, stroke her hair; his fingers wind around hers. She is intoxicated with love and desire. Everything's an aphrodisiac: the heat, the shimmering bodies, the music, the scent of tanning lotion, salt water, tortillas, filets de pescado. They had little back then, except each other.
“It was right here,” Morris says, and looks at her, bewildered. The taxi has stopped in front of a mini shopping mall with a cafe on the second floor. “I told you we should have made reservations.” His voice is brittle, accusing.
“We never did before.”
“This isn't then,” he says with such finality she's not sure whether to press him, make him say what he really means. For once, couldn't they be honest with each other? No. It's too soon, or maybe too late. “Alice, for God's sake, let's just go to the Holiday Inn. It's not as if we can't afford it.”
She looks up the street, at the old hotels that resemble the San Paolo — most of the Mexican ones do. “I want to stay in one of those,” she says, stubborn. “Try the one up the street.”
Finally in a room, while they unpack, Alice exclaims at the old fixtures, the bedspread, the table and chairs, the rusty refrigerator; calls them “quaint and charming”.
“It's a pile of old junk,” Morris says. “Stop romanticizing it. This is not Wonderland. We'd be a hell of a lot more comfortable in a new hotel and we wouldn't have to worry about sanitation.” He sits gingerly at the edge of the bed as if it were a precipice. Alice waits. But he lies down and closes his eyes.
Alice continues to unpack, determined not to let him bait her. Maybe if he sleeps a bit, things will be different. She lies beside him, takes his hand, but he turns away from her.
Alice is not neurotic, helpless or dependent. While people her age were backpacking and finding themselves in Europe, Alice, with the help of a loan from her father, was busy pursuing a vision. By the time she and Morris met, she had paid her father back and owned (with the bank) her whimsical gift shop, Alice in Wonderland. Since then, Morris has bought into the store, and handles all the paperwork. Alice is the whimsy, Morris the practical.
She watches him sleep, the rise and fall of his chest, and for a moment, she imagines herself falling down a well into a Wonderland where Morris catches her at the bottom like he did the night they drove, frenzied, to Stanley Park — eleven thirty, full moon — parked the car and ran to the wolves’ enclosures, because Alice wanted to witness their midnight howling. Which they didn’t do, because the wolves were either hiding or sleeping. So Morris suggested it might be werewolves who bayed at the moon, and they both made monstrous faces and howled and bounded through the woods, until they reached the seawall. The tide was out and the moon’s yellow finger split the water. Morris jumped onto the wet glistening stones, while Alice stepped on the wall and balanced three, four steps, before falling into Morris' arms and lips and laughter. Was it so long ago? Alice can't remember exactly.
They used to work well together, “building their future,” they always said. Alice looks at Morris, at the sweep of his indifference to her. The future, she thinks suddenly, is an attitude. Enigmatic, undetermined, unnamed.
She knows he agreed to the holiday because he could see she was dangerously close to a hysterical showdown. Maybe in Mexico, she thinks, away from Susan, they will talk it out, resolve it. He must know she knows. Or does he really think her so naive?
She gets up quietly, showers and changes into a new dress. She's pretty, thin, has thick straight black hair that ends bluntly halfway down her back. Her eyes are blue and her skin olive. She's more than pretty, she's very striking. She's accustomed to appreciative looks, in the way beautiful women are. From everyone, she thinks, except Morris, who has stopped seeing her. She has become familiar, comfortable, named. Alice. Wife. Nothing left to discover.
Later, after supper at Le Chateau Blanc, they find a Mexican bar. “One without gringos,” Alice insists. Morris raises his eyebrows, but goes along, bar to bar, until they find one “too seedy for tourists,” as he says. Alice doesn't care about the whys, she's trying to recreate an emotional state, solitude, the exclusivity of lovers in a crowd. Without distraction, they might fall in love again.
They drink together, bodies responding to the music. In the corner, a parade: strippers climb the postage-stamp stage and writhe to Latin rhythms. Clusters of men circle the stage, cheer, whoop, call them by name. In three songs, the women are naked and offering private orifices for public inspection. The men applaud, as if they've just been shown a magic trick. Some rise out of their seats, arms outstretched. The strippers deflect them with a flick of the hips, a twist of the ankle, a sweep of the hand — all as if it were part of the performance. Alice looks around at the groupings and couplings: against the bar, men engage in boisterous talk, words accented by slaps on each other's arms and backs; couples drink or talk or stare around the room hungrily; hookers and johns simulate intimacy; parties of young people toast one another; lovers speak with their eyes. What do you think they're saying? Who do you think they are? A safe examination of people's lives — anyone but theirs. The subtext hovers beneath the surface of her words — do you think they're having an affair?— which Morris deftly ignores.
An hour, two. The tequila slides down easy. At the next table, a man sucks a hooker’s nipple, his fingers kneading her white flesh. When he lifts his head, the hooker takes a tissue from her purse, and carefully wipes his spittle off her breast before pushing it back into the bodice of her strapless dress. Alice laughs. There are boundaries everywhere.
Then, at the door, an entourage of soldiers. Alice focuses on the machine guns, imagines Elliot Ness, Valentine’s Day. Instead, these soldiers nod and smile. A waiter leads them into the room, motioning move back. As they pass, here and there men stand and slightly bow.
“Who is it?” Alice asks.
Morris shrugs. “Some politician, likely. Who else would need a bloody army for protection?”
She sees him then. He’s not a politician, but a military man, his eyes quick and observant. He has a stocky body and a broad face — almost ugly — yet she can’t stop staring at him. He walks like a man who’s accustomed to giving orders. She imagines his hands sanctioning unspeakable tortures. He lazily surveys the room, then settles at a nearby table and openly stares at her.
“From El General.” The waiter nods in his direction when he sets down the drinks.
Alice moves closer to Morris. No tissue can wipe the general’s stare from her body. There was a time when Morris would have sensed this, would have circled her shoulders with his arm, in the way men do when they're establishing territory.
“Genghis Khan’s got his eye on you,” Morris says.
“Shhhhhh.” Alice sips her drink.
“Let’s call him over.” He raises his glass to the general.
“Morris, please —.” “He might as well stare at you here.” Morris motions the general and his party to join them.
Soon the table is a clutter of empty shot glasses, and Alice laughs too often, too loudly, shaking her head so her hair fans like a hula skirt around her face.
The general has a way of smiling suddenly, quickly, which makes him appear boyish. Disarmed, Alice thinks. Or is he armed? He is not the kind of man she can easily decipher.
He leans into her. “Very pretty hair,” he says, fingering it.
She feels his hand linger on her neck — let Morris see that other men find her attractive. She looks at him and shrugs.
What gets her is the pretense, the smiles and shrugs and laughter. The four of them last summer, she and Morris, Susan and Bill, on a camping holiday together — like forcible confinement. Yoho National Park in the Rockies. Did he really think she didn't wake up in the night, alone? Didn’t see their flashlight beam disappear into the spiral railway tunnels? And in the morning, the four of them at breakfast, and Morris saying, “Couldn't sleep so I went for a walk.” And Susan laughing. Alice, forced to smile. She could feel the shame creep up her body like ice water. And Bill, nodding a little too hard. Then later, Susan, her best friend, saying, “We ought to do this more often.” And Alice, “Sure, a lot more often.”
The general's English is good. He tells them he is in charge of the large prison nearby. “Many outlaws,” he says, which makes Alice think of cheap Hollywood westerns. “You must be careful.” He puts his arm on the back of her chair and whispers, “You Americans do not understand.”
“Canadians,” Alice says.
“Sí, Canadians too.”
Alice imagines herself, gun in hand, holster hugging her hips. She and Susan, back-to-back, ready to begin ten paces while Morris cries, “Be careful. Be careful!” . . .