Martha is sitting on the beach, her pale legs bent at the knees, her face poorly shielded by a sun visor covered with multicolored sequins that tend to attract rather than deflect the brutal midday sun. She looks out at the sea, studded with motorboats, water taxis, and machines resembling motorcycles, hoping that the shimmering blue water will somehow wash her mind of its worries. Martha is worried about money, specifically, how to amass enough of it to leave her boyfriend, whom she no longer loves, and his San Francisco apartment on Russian Hill, where she lives rent-free. It is never an easy task, this emptying of the mind, and it is made doubly difficult by the constant interruptions of sand peddlers.
“Señora, some silver today?” sings a tall skinny man with a mustache. “De plata?”
Martha shakes her head. “Lo siento.” It is a phrase she looked up in her Spanish dictionary after one hour in Cabo San Lucas. Lo siento. I’m sorry.
Martha really is sorry. She is sorry that human beings should have to wander up and down in this heat, their movements dictated by the fluctuations of the sand, their arms laden with heavy objects, cajoling the gringos to part with their precious dollars. She is sorry that the peso is worth less than a quarter. She is sorry that she sleeps in a clean room with clean sheets and running water–though not so sorry that she would consider sleeping in lesser accommodations. She is sorry that she eats freshly caught shrimp on clean linen tablecloths in a candlelit restaurant while the sand peddlers eat–what? where? Martha has heard that the peddlers are Indian peasants, on the lowest rung of the Mexican hierarchy; other than that she has no idea where or how they live.
But Martha does know what it feels like to stare through plate glass windows at well-dressed diners popping delicate morsels into their mouths. Even now, even here where she is unimaginably rich in the minds of the peasants, Martha knows about the have-not side of life.
The silver man ignores her protests and sinks onto one bony knee in the universal posture of a man proposing marriage. He snaps open his vinyl case and the light bounces across an array of silver: necklaces of varying lengths, bracelets studded with turquoise, rings inlaid with green or orange stones.
Martha frowns and waves her hand back and forth. “No. No. Lo siento. Hay no dinero.” The man shakes his head, shuts his case with a brisk snap, and walks on through the coarse sand. He will cover this beach, Playa Medano, until dark, or until the gringos retreat into the bars and restaurants, whichever comes first.
A short squat woman wearing a braid as thick as Martha’s wrist stumbles by. A scarf tied round her neck and waist holds a sleeping baby. Colorful pottery–dishes, jugs, platters–hang from her arms and her back.
“Lo siento,” Martha says miserably when the woman listlessly waves a jug in her direction. The woman plods onward, then stops in front of two young couples whose blanket is cluttered with t-shirts, bracelets and wall hangings. They have been lolling on the beach all afternoon, drinking beer from a cooler, bargaining with the sand peddlers and buying everything in sight. Earlier Martha heard one of the women say that Playa Medano beat Bloomingdale’s for convenient shopping.
Martha sighs and turns her attention back to the water. A parasail, pulled around in circles by a motorboat, bobs in the cerulean sky. Martha would like to try parasailing, but she is afraid–not of the sky or the water, but of the men who drive the boat.
This trip is all wrong, was wrong from its inception. She had told Jacob, after he’d canceled their Hawaii trip for business reasons, that she was going somewhere alone–hoping he’d relent and come along, that they’d be able to salvage whatever was left of their relationship. But he had not relented, and Martha’s pride forced her to follow through on her dare, even though it meant spending the last of her savings.
Martha’s idea of a vacation would be to repeat a week she once spent on a fogged-in porch in Lubec, Maine, bundled up in sweaters, drinking tea and reading the diaries of Virginia Woolf, writing an occasional letter to a friend. Her fantasy of Cabo had been of a warmer, sunnier version of Lubec–but it has turned out to be an ethnic Fort Lauderdale where American kids and young marrieds come to party. The drinking begins with a breakfast of Bloody Marys, progresses to beer by noon, salty Margaritas at happy hour and straight tequila after sundown. The most popular oceanside bar, located just a few yards from Martha’s hotel room, rollicks with drunken games of “Duck/Goose/Duck” late into the night, while Martha sits on her veranda trying to read Jane Austen by the light of a dim yellow bulb.
Even her clothes are wrong: this ridiculous hat, for instance. She’d impulsively bought it at a Castro Street yard sale because she liked the colors, not because San Francisco weather required a sun visor. She is convinced that locals and tourists alike are laughing at it; one peddler even pointed and said something in Spanish she couldn’t understand. Martha has in fact decided to buy herself a new hat–but, though haberdashers are as numerous as silversmiths on Playa Medano, not a one has yet approached her. Instead, she is presented with armloads of handmade lace, or t-shirts embossed with tequila-swilling Daffy Ducks. Lo siento are almost the only words, in Spanish or English, she has uttered in two days.
The sun is on the descent, the beach not nearly so hot, when Martha abandons her unfinished Margarita and leaves the crowded bar. The forced merriment combined with a few sips of tequila has given her heart palpitations, something she gets when feeling claustrophobic. She hesitates on the dusty slope, looking up to her hotel, then down toward the beach. A nap or a walk: Martha is torn between these possibilities. They seem to signify Good and Evil, the nap representing the sin of sloth, the walk imbued with virtue. Martha tends to inject a great deal of moral significance into small decisions.
This time “good” wins out, and Martha sets off for a sunset walk along the shore. The sky has turned a pale gold streaked with shades of pink. The watersport vehicles are mostly silent now, and only a few couples stroll or sit along the beach. Martha heads toward the large rocks with the much-touted arch pictured on postcards sold in town, wondering how far she can go and still get back before dark.
She passes a couple walking hand in hand, and briefly imagines Jacob beside her. The pang of sadness that pierces her like a knife is not for Jacob: were he here he’d be in their hotel room watching television; Jacob hates the feel of sand beneath his feet. No, the loss that Martha feels is for something she sees and envies in others, something she has never had.
“Lo siento,” she mumbles to the same pottery laden woman who’d approached her earlier. The baby still sleeps soundly in his flimsy papoose.
Martha decides that the goal of reaching the rocks is unrealistic. Perhaps she’ll get up very early tomorrow and jog in that direction. Although Martha has never jogged in her life, this thought cheers her: there is still a chance she might choose the righteous path of healthy living after all. Deep down, Martha knows that even if she does wake up early, she will choose coffee and the newspaper over jogging.
“Un sombrero, Señora?”
Martha looks up, startled. A boy of perhaps fourteen stands before her, a pile of straw hats on top of his head, many more on his arm. The hats are circled with colored bands: most say “Cabo San Lucas,” but a few bear flowers made of fabric.
“Pero…” says Martha, eyeing one of the flowered hats. It is red and green, the colors of Christmas, which Martha despises, and no match for her blue and purple bathing suit.
The boy coughs without covering his mouth, and the sound resonates in his chest. “Esto sombrero,” he says, pointing to Martha’s sun visor, “es malo.” A slow smile of regret for her bad taste creeps across his round face.
“Si,” Martha agrees, “es malo. Pero, quiero un sombrero….” She rummages through her mind where surely the colors of the rainbow are stored, and comes up empty. “Habla inglés?” she asks.
The boy laughs, coughs, shakes his head all at once.
“Hablo español un pequito,” says Martha, warming to the task, “but we’ll manage. Quiero,” she says, pointing to her bathing suit, “esto color.”
The boy nods and kneels in the sand. He unties a cloth sack and begins pulling out pieces of fabric. He holds up one of navy blue and another of purplish pink.
“Si,” Martha says, nodding vigorously. “Perfecto.” Then she remembers to ask, “Quando cuesto?”
“Thirty-five,” says the boy, apparently knowing the English words for numbers.
“Pesos or dollars?” asks Martha.
The boy laughs, again accompanied by the harsh cough, which is starting to worry Martha. She wonders if he is trying to gain her sympathy, or if, conversely, he has tuberculosis and she will catch it.
“Pesos,” he replies.
Martha calculates; this is about $7.00. She could buy a straw hat at home for five, and although she hates to haggle, she knows it is expected.
“Twenty-five,” she says.
The boy snaps his head back and forth, offended. “No, no señora. Thirty.”
Martha nods, closing the deal. She kneels in the sand and watches the boy separate strands of fabric from the end of the purple band, then bunch them up in the beginning stages of a flower shape. His slender brown fingers work easily, without hesitation but also without hurry.
“Como se llama?” Martha asks.
“Octavio,” he replies, looking up briefly.
“Octavio,” Martha repeats. “Me llamo Marta.” She is glad she knows the Spanish version of her name. “Usted trabaja mucho, Octavio.”
“Si. Y mucho calor.” He points to the sun, then to his arm. “Negro,” he says, with the same smile of regret he’d shown for her hat.
Martha winces. “Es mucho caliente,” she agrees, Spanish suddenly flooding her brain. “Pero mi hija es negro también. El mismo qué usted.” This is true. Martha’s daughter Suzanne is dark enough to blend in with the population of most Third World countries.
Octavio squints his eyes at Martha, no doubt thinking it is her Spanish that is at fault. “Su hija es negra?”
Martha would like to explain that Suzanne is ethnically white, but through some genetic accident came into the world cosmetically dark; since she does not know how to say this, she settles for a simple “Si.”
“Es bonita?” he asks doubtfully.
Martha nods vigorously. “Si. Es muy bonita.”
Again, Octavio squints his eyes at Martha; he knows his numbers, so this cannot be a linguistic misunderstanding.
“Tengo forty-eight años,” she says with an apologetic shrug, remembering the woman with the braid who looked her own age but is no doubt much younger. “Y usted?”
“Fifteen. Su hija es cansada?”
“En Octobre mi hija cansara,” says Martha, picturing Suzanne walking down the aisle, her olive skin set off by bridal white. At the same time, she is recording every sensory detail of the moment, knowing that this encounter with Octavio will forever be remembered as the highlight of her Mexican vacation.
The straw hat is now encircled with two bands that meet to form a frilly blue and purple flower. Octavio presents it for Martha’s inspection. She smiles. “Ah. Si. Es muy bonito.”
She removes her visor and places the new hat on top of her head, reaches into her fanny pack and takes out two twenty-peso notes. When Octavio begins counting out change, Martha shakes her head. “No. Es okay. Todo por usted.”
The next day, when the silver man shouts, “Hey big spender,” Martha feels foolish, realizing that Octavio has told all the peddlers of her overpayment.
Martha stands in the hotel lobby alongside twenty or so other sunburned, baggage-toting gringos, waiting for the bus that will take them to the airport. She is wearing Octavio’s hat, having left her sun visor in the room next to a generous tip for the maid. She imagines, or hopes, that it will find its way to some resourceful relative who will patiently remove the sequins and use them to create something new. But just as the bus pulls up, the maid comes running downstairs in her blue uniform, holding the glittering sun visor toward Martha.
“No,” Martha protests, waving her away, “no quiero. Por usted.”
The maid’s heavily lipsticked mouth opens in a silent laugh. She turns quickly on her heel and goes back upstairs, shrugging to the other maids gathered on the landing. Through their laughing chatter Martha is almost certain she hears the phrase, “El sombrero de la gringa loca.”
As the bus wends its way along Cabo’s coastline, Martha gazes out the window at one construction site after another, all hotels-in-progress. Further inland, shabby huts cluster at intervals along the road. Martha wonders if the people in the huts will get jobs in the hotels, or end up selling their wares on the beach.
At the airport there is a delay. Martha tries to read or do crossword puzzles, but her mind is buzzing with thoughts of Jacob, who is to meet her plane in San Francisco. She pictures his bearded face, the chiseled cheekbones, the good-natured smile, and her insides go molten. Then she imagines his quick peck on her lips–Jacob never displays affection in public–and bristles. She closes her eyes and imagines them at home later, in bed, his hands on her naked flesh. Jacob’s touch is so sure and steady that when he holds her she feels rooted to the planet, a feeling Martha has never previously experienced. Until Jacob, she felt that she could simply float away and no one, least of all she, would notice. But Jacob’s hands hold her in a way that forces her into the here-and-now. It is the discrepancy between the promise implicit in Jacob’s touch and his daily interactions with her, which tend to be distracted, that has generated so much confusion and ambivalence for Martha.
During the plane ride Martha’s thoughts wander back and forth, from sexual anticipation to self-reassurance, as she tries to convince herself not to leave Jacob. Everything is a trade-off, she tells herself. And she has left so many imperfect lovers, she is starting to believe that the problem lies with her own lack of tolerance, an immature refusal to compromise. Maybe if she went back into therapy…but she has no money for therapy…maybe Jacob would pay for it…but how can she ask him when he’s already footing most of the bills…maybe one of the jobs she applied for will come through…of course, if this happens, then she can afford to move out…she could live independently again, which she misses…..but Martha is beginning to fear a lonely old age. Should she go into therapy and try to make the relationship work, or should she move out and get on with life alone? It is a moot question, since she lacks the resources to do either.
Round and round go Martha’s thoughts, in this circular cage she has been pacing for months; the trip to Cabo has done nothing to free her. Despite everything, when the plane hits the tarmac she feels a surge of excitement, and almost runs down the ramp towards Jacob.
In the car, Martha cannot help stealing repeated glances at Jacob’s profile: he is so very handsome. He asks her about Cabo and she proceeds to describe the hotel, the beach, the other tourists. Jacob is always telling their friends that he loves listening to Martha no matter what she’s saying because her voice is so sexy–but as she talks she can feel his attention wander. Midway through the story of the hat on her head, she feels as if she is speaking to dead air. She stops.
It takes Jacob a minute or two to recognize the silence. He glances over at her. “Why’d you stop talking?”
“Because I was finished.”
When Jacob accepts her lie, Martha knows he has not heard a word of her babbling. She sinks back against the seat, blinking back tears, suppressing a sudden physical pain in her neck. She asks Jacob what he’s been doing for the last four days.
“We had some excitement at work yesterday,” he says, and now Martha knows why he wasn’t listening to her: he was anxious to deliver his news. “We got that contract for the big vodka campaign.” Jacob’s ad agency specializes in placing voiceovers; he’s even done a few of them himself. “And,” he says, turning to Martha with his Dennis Quaid grin, “The president asked me to personally do one of the voices.”
If Jacob were not sitting down, he would be strutting: as it is, his chest is puffed out, his shoulders raised, his mouth open in a self-congratulatory grin. Not for the first time Martha finds herself repulsed by his self-love, so much greater than his love for her. Still, she feels guilty that she is not glad, pure and simple, for his success.
“Oh, Jacob, that’s wonderful,” she manages to say.
“Yeah. The rep took me aside so no one else would hear and told me that the president thinks I have the best voice in the business. ‘I’ve never heard a voice as rich as yours’ he told me, ‘and I’ve never heard anyone use their voice the way you do.’ He said I was better than any voice actor I ever sent him. I didn’t tell anyone he said that, of course. But it was cool.” Jacob looks at Martha, awaiting her praise.
But Martha is silent. What can she possibly say? Certainly Jacob needs no encouragement from her; she is not sure why, but she feels that to fawn over his vocal prowess would, at this moment, compromise her integrity.
As they enter the city Martha asks Jacob if he wants to stop and pick up something for dinner. Really she would like Chinese food, but since Jacob is the one who will pay for whatever they eat, she feels she has no right to state her preference.
“Oh,” he says warily, “I’m meeting Louis for dinner and a movie. Remember? I told you, I’m sure I did.” He throws her a sidelong look.
Jacob often tells Martha the details of his crowded schedule, and she blocks it out: it hurts her to hear how much time he is spending with other people, much more than he spends with her. Louis is a fairly recent and minor acquaintance of Jacob’s, and his choice to spend the evening of her return with him baffles and pains her.
“Are you mad at me?” Jacob asks, as if challenging her to launch into her ongoing campaign for his time and attention.
“No,” she says wearily. “I’m not mad.”
At home Martha eats pasta with bottled sauce and goes through her mail. She has received three job rejections. Her phone messages are from her daughter, her mother, and a friend in New York: no employment prospects. She gazes out the window at Victorian houses, their rooftops sloping in gradations towards the bay, and is gripped with terror. Though Martha has been broke for most of her life, this is the first time she has no income at all. She will never be able to leave Jacob, to free herself of the pain of this relationship.
She looks around at the neat apartment with its antique furnishings and photos of European monuments on the walls. Things could be a lot worse, she reminds herself. She could be pushing hats on Playa Medano.
Nearly a month later Martha is no closer to finding employment. She has sent out over 40 resumes and has been called for one interview, where she is told that she is one of 300 or so applicants. To ease her sense of dependence on Jacob, she has begun typing his paperwork.
The phone rings. It is Lena, Jacob’s partner’s wife.
“We just got back,” Lena sings in her musical voice.
Vaguely Martha remembers that Lena and Brett went to Cabo San Lucas, staying in the same hotel as Martha.
“And have I got stories for you!”
Martha pictures the statuesque Lena, her reddened lips open wide, her head thrown back to reveal a long slender neck.
“Can you guys come for dinner Saturday?” Lena asks.
Martha’s spirits sink. Evenings with Brett and Lena tend to be long, with Brett and Jacob talking shop in the living room, and Lena confiding details of their sex life in the kitchen, assuming an intimacy with Martha that is entirely one-sided. In a flash she imagines the romantic week Brett and Lena spent snorkeling in the sea, making noisy love in their room, and dancing in the local bars. Martha knows she will hardly recognize their version of Cabo San Lucas.
Nonetheless, she sees no way to decline; Jacob, who has deduced from Martha’s behavior that she and Lena are close friends, loves to spend time with other couples.
The smell of garlic fills Brett and Lena’s apartment. After the hugs and kisses and greetings, Martha goes into the bedroom to deposit their coats. The chair in the corner of the room is a mess of colorful clothing, Mexican blankets, strands of silver jewelry. Something glitters in the moonlight coming through the curtains; as Martha gets closer she is stunned to see a sequined sun visor on top of the pile. Tentatively she picks it up and turns it around in her hand; it is unmistakably the hat she left in Cabo.
The sequins twinkle, hiding a mystery. Did the maid simply leave it, and did Lena and Brett stay by chance in the same room?
Martha turns as Lena enters the bedroom, closing the door softly. “Oh, I am just dying to talk to you alone,” she whispers, tiptoeing across the room and switching on a lamp.
“Where did you get this hat?” Martha asks.
Lena is mildly annoyed by this diversion from her agenda. “Oh, that thing. Isn’t it hilarious? Like something you’d find in the tackiest drag queen store.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“From a Mexican kid on the beach. He was selling hats like that one.” Lena points her chin at the bureau, on top of which is a replica of Martha’s flowered straw hat.
“Octavio,” Martha whispers, so low that Lena doesn’t hear.
“He was wearing this visor on his head,” Lena continues, “and I got such a kick out of seeing a gay boy’s hat on a Mexican peasant, I decided I had to have it. He was a hard sell, too–I paid 50 pesos for that silly thing.”
Martha speculates about the chain of friends or relatives that had somehow delivered her hat to Octavio’s head. Was he wearing it in an attempt to shield his brown skin from the sun? Did he think about her when he put it on? She is glad he got so much money for it.
“Why are you so fascinated by that hat?” Lena asks, taking it from Martha and tossing it onto the bed. “Look at the great stuff we bought.” She rummages through the pile on the chair and pulls out a bright Mexican shawl. She wraps it around her long straight back and sways from side to side, bending her knees as she moves. “I wore this when we went dancing in town. The most gorgeous man came on to me…”
Lena is off and running, telling how she danced with the stranger, while Brett watched, and how it excited him so much that he tore her clothes off when they got back to the hotel. It is a familiar Lena-Brett scenario, and Martha tunes it out. She is staring at her sun visor. It is, she thinks, a messenger, a note in a bottle swept onto the shore of her life. The message Martha receives, or perhaps invents, is that letting go can lead to strange and wondrous occurrences. You never know, she thinks, when you make a change, where it will take you—but you must make the change anyway.
Lena, flushed from telling her story, leads Martha into the dining room where the table has been set with a new Mexican lace tablecloth and silver candlesticks. The men are pouring wine into crystal glasses. Martha looks at Jacob, who is so obviously comfortable as part of a foursome. She pictures him alone in his apartment after she leaves, eating bags of cookies and bowls of cereal the way he did before she entered his life.
Martha thinks of all the men she has left when they failed to meet her expectations, the jobs she has walked out on because she felt caged, the trail of confused friends left behind whenever she moved on to something new. Although these thoughts fill her with rising energy, it is tempered by the sorrow she feels for Jacob.
He raises his wine glass. “Salud!”
“Skoal!” say Lena and Brett in unison.
Without thinking, Martha clinks her glass against the others and murmurs, “Lo siento.”