In The Yucatan
By Charlotte Rains Dixon
They are riding on a bus to Chichen Itza, Cass and her family, and their tour guide is unsuccessfully trying to teach them a Mayan greeting.
“Ba’ax ka wa’alik,” Gabriel says, standing in the aisle at the front of the bus. He is short and slight, which is typical for Mayan men, Cass has read. His face is handsome, with an elegant nose and dark eyes. He uses a microphone, though his voice is resonant and would carry to the back of the bus on its own.
The phrase he is teaching them translates in English to, “Hello, what do you say?” Gabriel repeats the Mayan version. “Ba’ax ka wa’ alik. Now you try.”
Corruptions of the odd-sounding phrase ring out from different parts of the bus, which is air-conditioned and has a bathroom in the back. Gabriel and a representative from their resort passed out water as they boarded, and promised beers later, so all the passengers are cool and comfortable and eager for their glimpse of Mayan life.
“Boshko Wahleek.” James stops his incessant whistling and attempts the phrase, too. He’s in the seat next to her, and he’s leaning forward as avidly as if he were attending a partners’ meeting back home in Seattle. After a week on the beaches of the Caribbean, he’s deeply tanned. Except for his crow’s feet. When he quits squinting at Gabriel and turns to smile at Cass, she notices the white wrinkles that radiate from his eyes like the rays of the sun.
“This is great, isn’t it?” James says, patting Cass’s bare knee. She hopes he doesn’t notice how quickly she pulls her leg away. Like everyone else on the bus, she’s wearing shorts, a cotton shirt and sturdy walking shoes. Stowed in the overhead compartment above her seat are the light sweaters and shirts they’ve brought for the ride back. According to the tour brochure, passengers often get chilled on the air-conditioned bus after a long day in the sun.
“You are all very close,” Gabriel lies. “Listen one more time. Bah-ahsko-wah-ah-leek.”
This time James pronounces it pitch perfect and leans across the aisle for a high five from Laura.
“Way to go, Dad.” She’s wearing a skimpy white tank and has pulled her thick dark hair into a ponytail. Headphones for her CD player dangle around her neck. Soon as she saw Gabriel talking, she removed them so she could hear.
Unlike Liam, whose headphones are firmly clamped to his ears as he stares out the window. He’d listened to a bit of Gabriel’s talk, but plugged himself back in once the passengers started attempting the Mayan phrase. Liam is better at languages than any of them. He’s currently finishing his fourth year of Spanish in high school. Cass knew the language well once, and prided herself on her knowledge of it. But her ability lies in the written word, not spoken, and here in Mexico the natives talk so fast she’s often lost. It’s a relief, in a way, not to have to be the one who listens and translates. But in truth, beyond the occasional communication with the maids who clean their room, or a taxi driver from the nearby town, they have little need to speak anything but English.
Cass finds her gaze locked on Liam. Her baby is about to venture into the world, his imminent departure her own self-imposed deadline for making a decision. Bushy eyebrows, dark eyes, strong jaw, blond hair. Heartbreakingly handsome. He feels the weight of her stare, turns to her and frowns as if to say, knock it off.
So she does, and looks out her own window. Through the front windshield, the road glitters like a silver ribbon. But the illusion is shattered when the bus catches up to another tour bus, and ahead of that one she sees two others. On either side of the road, the tropical forest stretches as far as she can see. She’s been calling it the jungle, charmed by the romance and mystery of the word, but she isn’t sure if that is technically correct. Well, whatever. She can see over the top of the jungle canopy from the bus’s high seats. She’s accustomed to the towering firs and pines of the Pacific Northwest, but the trees here are shorter. Acacias and locusts and palms form a dense thicket of feathery green so overgrown its hard to imagine any human habitation among it, though once in awhile she spies a thatched-roofed hut.
Back on the coast, their resort sits on a similar swath of land where the forest runs right down to the sandy beaches of the blue Caribbean. Cass thinks only the ocean is a strong enough force to stop the jungle. Though their resort is landscaped to mimic the look of the tropical forest, it is in fact a thin and firmly controlled illusion. A vast cadre of locals maintains the manicured lawns and paths that snake under palms and beside the serpentine swimming pool.
“It feels like they are racing against time,” Cass had said to her family on their first day at the resort, a beach day, which meant a lot of time trodding back and forth on the paths. She’d nodded to a group of men in yellow polos and blue pants, the standard resort worker uniform.
Blank looks from Laura and James had greeted her comment, though Liam had nodded thoughtfully. Cass had the feeling even stronger early the next morning as she ran along the paths before the day heated up. Peacocks screeched and she smelled sweet blossoms and bug spray. A worker raked dead leaves from beneath a bush near where a group of guinea hens lay. If they ever stopped raking and spraying and trimming, the jungle would encroach in days, even hours, she thought, so palpable was its force.
But later that night, when they’d gathered at the lobby bar to await their friends from Colorado, Liam returned from the bar with a Planter’s Punch. Just eighteen, he was old enough to drink in Mexico, and he’d set out to sample every cocktail he’d ever heard of. He took a sip of the drink, smiled, and set it on a low marble table beside a bowl of popcorn. He settled on the apricot colored banquette. Behind him, a fountain cascaded in one of the low rectangular pools that bordered the lobby, and Cass could see the flock of flamingos that lived there.
“I’ve figured this place out,” Liam said. “It’s Jurassic Park meets Dirty Dancing.”
James had laughed and clapped his son on the shoulder, telling him how clever he was, but when Cass thought about it, she wasn’t sure James had ever seen Dirty Dancing. “Chick flick,” he’d sneered when she’d wanted to re-rent it recently. She’d gotten it anyway, and watched it alone the next afternoon when she should have been writing. She hadn’t told Martin about watching it, though they usually always discussed movies, because he hated it when she wasted her writing time.
Cass pulls her mind to the present and returns her attention to Gabriel. She’s vowed not to think of Martin on this vacation. She’s sworn she will concentrate only on her family.
Gabriel has finished his Mayan language instruction and started his spiel on Chichen Itza. “It is the largest of the Mayan ruins and to many the most impressive,” he says. “We will see the Mayan ball court, a cenote used for human sacrifices, and of course, the famous temple of Kukulcan. You can climb the ninety-three steps to the top of the temple. It’s a fabulous view of the countryside from up there. But if you don’t make it all the way, don’t worry. We have a plan for you so you can still brag to your friends. You climb as far as you can, have your picture taken, and then tell your friends, ‘that was me on the way down from the top.’”
“That will be you, Mom,” Laura says.
“Hey, she’s fitter than you,” Liam says. Cass hasn’t noticed he’s taken the earphones off until he speaks.
“I meant her fear of heights, dummy,” Laura says.
“I thought you were getting over that, Mom. I mean, you said you were going parasailing tomorrow,” her son says.
Cass smiles her noncommittal Mom smile, which she hopes doesn’t look like a grimace. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we?”
In truth, the thought of parasailing terrifies her. From the beach all week she has watched the boat tow the blue and white parachute back and forth, people dangling beneath it, looking like the toy soldier parachutists she used to throw off her mother’s deck. But she thinks if she could just do one thing outside her comfort zone she could move forward in her life. She’d thought maybe she could manage the parasailing, that it would be like sitting atop the Ferris wheel. It hadn’t occurred to her there’d be anything on the Chichen Itza tour to challenge her fears. And lately her fears seem to be getting worse. Even the stairs she runs down every morning on her usual route at home give her vertigo, so that she has to clutch the railing in order to not feel as if she’s pitching forward from one reality to another.
“What can you tell us about the Mayan understanding of astronomy?” James asks.
“Ah. Yes, the Mayans were great astronomers,” Gabriel answers. “But I can more easily explain their methods once we arrive.”
The stars are James’s passion. His predilection to become deeply obsessed with a topic is what had attracted Cass to him all those years ago. And she is almost certain it is what makes their relationship such a failure now. James, it seems, can see into the heavens, but hardly notices what is right under his nose.
When they first met, it had been painting. The university they attended had a large art department and James took classes in various media, wore a black beret, and carried a large portfolio everywhere. His first crisis of faith came because of art. “I’ll never be good enough to do anything with it,” he said one day. And then he’d shlumped around campus, morose, and slept on Cass’s couch, refusing sex or any other sustenance. Until one day Cass came home to the table set with the only two placemats she owned, beeswax candles aglow, Coltrane on the stereo. (Jazz had been James’s previous passion.) Potatoes baked in the oven and steaks sizzled on the grill outside on her apartment’s tiny balcony.
“This is a momentous occasion,” he said as he whipped off his apron and held out a chair for her. “I’ve decided to go into law.”
Law had been good for James, allowing him ever more expensive passions. There was the model-train phase (their basement was still cluttered with boxes full of the half-laid out tracks), and the motorcycle phase, which required the purchase of not only the bike, but an expensive helmet and several leather outfits. The bird-watching phase had encompassed expeditions to eastern Oregon. Days spent behind binoculars, James calling out the birds so that Cass could note them on his life list, nights in motel rooms, James pounding away on the laptop while Cass and the kids watched grainy old movies on the cable-less TV in the motel room.
And now, stars. Saturn’s rings magnified in the telescope, or the craters of the moon looming through the eyepiece like pockmarks on a teenager’s face. James could wax poetic about the constellations, spout the dates of upcoming eclipses, point out the winter circle, a ring from Sirius to Orion’s Belt, on a cold winter’s night. Cass was actually quite interested in astronomy but James’s overwhelming enthusiasm left little room for her.
The stars were how she’d gotten him here.
“I hate vacations,” he said, right after Cass and Laura broached the subject of Mexico. The Parkers — their Denver friends — had just called and invited them, and Cass, listening to Molly Parker talk about Mexico, had envisioned it as a place that might open her up, the place she had been searching for.
“You just hate vacations when you can’t take your laptop, Daddy,” Laura said. “You like it just fine when we go to the beach every summer.”
“Because he works the whole time,” said Liam, just entering the kitchen from rugby practice.
“We could visit Mayan ruins,” Cass said. “Weren’t they really into astronomy?” Cass had seen the spark of interest on his face. Laura apparently noticed, too. “Think of how many stars you’ll be able to see down there,” she said.
“I wonder if I could take my telescope,” James said, and Cass knew he was already in Mexico, at least in his mind.
And now they are here for real, though the trip is almost over. James, whistling under his breath, leans towards her, his hand again angling toward her knee, and suddenly she can’t stand it, can’t stand sitting next to him, can’t stand his whistling, can’t stand the touch of his hand on her tan, cool skin. She turns her head toward the window. James says something to Laura instead. Cass doesn’t listen to them, just stares through the glass.
The bus is passing through a small village. From her perch in a plush air conditioned seat high above the street it looks like all the buildings in town have been built up close to the narrow road. Cinder block boxes with open doors and windows—no glass—form both stores and houses. Through one doorway she sees a display of Coke and potato chips. Through another, a man swings on a hammock. There isn’t, as far as she can tell, any electricity, in either the stores or the houses.
“Do you, Cass?” James nudges her. “Do you?”
“What?” she says.
“Want to go home day after tomorrow?” Both James and Laura stare at her, waiting for confirmation of their opinions of the trip.
“No,” Cass smiles. “I don’t want to go home. I could stay here forever. I love Mexico.”
James pats her knee and this time she’s sure he doesn’t notice how she pulls it away from him. “Me too. I love it here too.”
Conveniently he’s forgotten how loudly he squawked when he paid the travel agent for the airplane tickets, how he complained about missing the college basketball play-offs. Cass wonders how long it will take him to forget Mexico, lays odds he’ll have his cell phone out the minute they set foot in the Houston airport, guarantees to herself he’ll be talking to a partner as they shuffle through customs.
But Cass does love it here, she really does, especially the less touristy parts, which she would have preferred to see more of. She loves the small fishing town where the resort shuttle deposits them for shopping and a better taste of the local flavor. A few days ago they’d bought silver jewelry and colorful sarongs, Dos Equis T-shirts and beer mugs and when they were finished shopping, they’d eaten fish tacos at an open-air cantina.
Cass sipped her cerveza and watched the parade by the café. Well-heeled tourists in crisp shorts and clean T-shirts, young Americans with dirty hair and overloaded backpacks. Mexican merchants stood outside their stores and tried to beckon customers in. The waiter brought their dinner, and a Mariachi band stopped to play at their table. Cass excused herself to use the bathroom, which featured a yellow-stained toilet and no place to wash her hands.
“I think this is the real Mexico,” she announced when she returned to the table, where a dog had arrived to nose at the smells on the floor.
“If this is the real Mexico, you can have it. I’ll take the resort version any day,” James had said.
Now she glances at him on the bus. If not for the stars, it would have been impossible to convince him to go on this tour. He would have preferred another day by the water, Pina Coladas from the beach-side bar, lunch at the buffet, followed by a dip in the Caribbean and then another drink. But once she mentioned astronomy, he was all for it.
He emotes about it at great length, stretching the patience of even close friends like the Parkers. Cass notices the looks that pass between Molly and her husband, Richard. Last night, for instance, as they sat in the lobby bar, when James started in on the stars Richard had quickly changed the subject to work issues. James had rapidly become engrossed in debating the relative merits of legal secretaries and had never noticed the slight.
The subject of secretaries was not one that Cass liked, so she had excused herself to order another glass of wine, even though the bar’s selection of Merlot is minimal. While she waited at the long wood bar to get the bartender’s attention, Molly appeared at her side, her friend’s cheeks bearing two red circles like a clown’s make-up. Cass wondered how many drinks Molly had consumed.
“I came up here to ask how you can stand it,” Molly said.
“Stand what?” The handsome bartender stood before her, finally, and she asked for the Merlot. “You want anything?” she asked Molly.
Molly shook her head and waited for the bartender to walk away. “How do you stand the way James flaunts his relationship with his secretary in front of you?”
Cass had to stifle a laugh. Molly had picked up the tension in Cass’s marriage, she’d just guessed wrong about the players. “There are a lot of things I’ve learned to ignore about James.” It’s a lame response, but she can’t think of any other.
“You’re so brave,” Molly had said. “When Richard had an affair with that Karen woman, I thought I’d die.”
Cass has heard play by play descriptions of Richard’s affair and the ensuing havoc it wreaked on the Parker marriage during late night phone calls from Denver. But she didn’t tell Molly that she knows for certain that James is not having an affair with his secretary, though not for lack of trying. Bourbon-drenched and sobbing, James had confessed the failure of his one attempt at extramarital sex to Cass after last year’s Christmas party.
Instead, she had made appropriate noises of sympathy to Molly until the bartender returned with her Merlot. Cass felt Molly’s disappointment at her failure to offer up a confidence of her own as they returned to where the men sat on the apricot banquettes.
Cass stares out the window of the bus. Her dilemna is her own to solve, and goes way beyond the simple shelter of gossip that Molly desires. Now Gabriel stands up again and the sound of microphone feedback fills the bus. Even Liam removes his earphones. They turn into a parking lot crammed with cars and more buses. “Number one-oh-two, we are bus number one-oh-two. Very important for you to remember! We will meet on the other side of the gate for our tour and then you will have your free time.”
Later, what Cass will remember most about Chichen Itza is the heat and her failure of nerve. The crumbling limestone edifices of the once powerful city sit across vast stretches of grass and dirt from each other. Their little group from the bus joins throngs of others, walking from ruin to ruin and listening to Gabriel’s spiel. Heat shimmers up from the ground in visible waves. Cass gulps water from the blue labeled bottle, a brand ubiquitous in Mexico, and seeks out shade when she can.
Liam is fascinated with the Mayan ball court, where some ancient forerunner to rugby was played. He seems entranced with the idea that either the game’s winners or its losers — archaelogists disagree on which — are sacrificed at the end of the match. Liam eyes the high limestone ring through which the ball had to be passed to win. “Sometimes it took weeks for one side to accomplish this,” Gabriel says. Cass watches the expression on her son’s face, imagines he’s calculating the difficulty of passing the ball through the ring in terms of scoring a rugby try. James whistles softly beside her, anxious to see the temple and hear about astronomy.
It’s a long walk in the hot sun from site to site, and Cass is beginning to appreciate the cooling breezes of the Caribbean that are absent inland. Her T-shirt is blotched with sweat by the time their group reaches the cenote. She’s given up worrying about how she looks, tells herself it’s a very American notion to fret about such a natural function as sweat. She’s so hot she can barely concentrate on Gabriel’s explanation of the sacrificial cenote. The Yucatan’s limestone ground is dotted with these sinkholes called cenotes, Gabriel explains, and this one was discovered to have been a sacrificial pool when a former owner drained it and found mounds of bones.
Fascinating stuff, to be sure, but the perspiration beading on her temples and sprouting beneath her arms is distracting. Relief floods her when Liam emerges from a refreshment stand with four bottles of water. She drinks half of it in one long swig, pours part of it down her back, then runs to catch up with the rest of the group.
And finally James gets his hit of astronomy. They reach the base of the Kukulcan pyramid, where she watches tourists swarm its steps like so many ants, or maybe worker bees. Gabriel points to the carvings along the side of the pyramid and the serpent’s head at the bottom of the flanged wall. On the day of the spring and fall equinoxes, Gabriel says, the light falls in just such a way as to make a design of a serpent all the way up the side of the temple. Only later, looking at a postcard in the gift shop, can Cass visualize what he means.
“Just last week there were thousands of visitors here to see the phenomenon,” Gabriel says.
“Damn, we missed it,” James says.
“We can come back next year, Daddy,” Laura says. “I know Mom would want to.”
Cass considers her daughter’s comment. Next year, Liam will be away at school and Laura will be in her junior year of college. And where will Cass be? She herself doesn’t know.
She shrugs and smiles at her daughter. “You never know what will happen. I guess we’ll just have to see.”
And then the tour is over and Gabriel says he’ll meet them in an hour. “What’s the number of your bus?” he asks the group.
“One-oh-two” they shout in unison.
And its time to climb the ninety-three steps to the top of the Temple of Kukulcan. If Cass stops to think about it she’ll dive to the ground and cower in the heat and dust, so she strides to the base of the pyramid and starts the ascent. All around her, others climb, too. Men run past with an abandon that makes her shiver, women clamber up the steps on all fours, like giant spiders. James and Liam have shot past her, but Laura seems content to match her pace. Halfway up, a person jostles Cass from behind. She turns her head at the intrusion, and sees the vast expanse of jungle below, immediately feels the vertigo overwhelming her. She sits on the step. Smells sweat, hers or someone else’s, she doesn’t know.
“You coming, Mom?”
Cass glances up. Laura has passed her now. Liam and James are already at the top, striding along the narrow walk outside the stone room on top. Looking up at them makes her dizzy. But so does looking down. She clutches the stone step beneath her. It’s hot and bumpy, its surface rutted from centuries of climbers.
“I need to rest,” she tells her daughter. “You go on. I’ll catch up”
But Cass knows she’ll go no further. She’d been foolish to challenge the boundaries of her comfort zone, crazy to think she could handle parasailing. Now she’s not even certain how she will get down from the pyramid. She experiments with descending to the next step, slowly sliding her bottom down. Dizziness overwhelms her. She fights the rising panic.
She closes her eyes and thinks of Martin, though she’s vowed she won’t do that while she’s in Mexico. Martin had asked her again, right before she left Seattle, when she would decide. Cass had hoped that a week in the Yucatan with her family would make everything clear. But now, sitting on the bumpy steps of the temple, her life seems inextricably complex, like a knot tied so tightly it can never be undone.
She opens her eyes. She sees the world open up beneath her from the temple steps, like a vast abyss. It terrifies her. And all she can think to do is ease her way back down to earth, one step at a time.