I've always liked to travel, sampling other people's lives, but when I sampled Eric in graduate school years ago, long before we married other people, I never dreamed that someday we'd be traveling to Mexico together on this whirlwind trip to his wife's hideway on a Baja beach.
Just friends, of course. I told him so. I'd made a deal with myself before I left New York. I could only leave my husband for a vacation if I didn't sleep with anyone else. But what was Eric's deal? Typically, he didn't say. Eric was opaque, deliberately concealed in spiffy linens, carefully coordinated olives and pale greens, and he wore funny little woven Italian shoes. But I spent a childhood studying people like him, staring out my apartment window into other people's windows, watching what they were doing, trying to figure out who they were. My parents were never home. My mother illustrated medical books, my father, a professional bohemian, was out all day doing God knows what. Maybe the neighbors felt sorry for me. They rarely pulled the blinds.
Or maybe they wanted me to spy on them. It made them feel important. Now, driving down the highway past the flesh-colored California hills, I suspected Eric wanted me to spy on him too. He was a dark window.
My vow of summer chastity, like fasting, had aroused me and sharpened my senses. I loved being with Eric, a happy part of my past. And on a more primitive level, although I didn't like admitting it, I was proud of getting Eric away from Meredith this weekend, too. Meredith was Eric's wife, "an international design celebrity" who actually referred to herself that way, a tiny woman with a Hollywood sense of exaggeration and a tinkling well-practiced laugh.
Not that getting Eric away from Meredith was any big thing. Nothing to go giddy over. Eric didn't sleep with Meredith anyway, I'd heard. Or at least Dorrie, my friend in L.A. who worked in their Design office said that was the general buzz around the water cooler about the tension between them.
It made sense. "I believe it," I told Dorrie.
Eric never liked nitty-gritty sex that much. His idea of a sex fantasy was like a Brancusi sculpture, streamlined and spacious, uncluttered; clean. But for some reason Eric's streamlined fantasies excited me. I even appropriated them as my own. I used to slip over the surface of him when we made love, sliding fast. His surface was cool and smooth and light. His hands were subtle and severe and sparkling.
Now Eric lifted his eyes off the road and smiled. His warm, quiet attention on me was like a slash of sunlight through glass. I extended my body towards him and the hair prickled on my arms. He said, "You haven't changed much in thirteen years." "You haven't changed either." I was flattered, not annoyed, by this lie.
I remembered his reserve as alluring and mysterious when we were young. I hoped he hadn't gotten trapped behind it. We passed through Customs, and a mosaic of broken beer bottles littered the roadside, glass and plastic dumped down hills topped by tin-roofed shanties. Patches of colorful laundry streamed, and in gullies I spotted abandoned tires, dogs with incised ribs and children romping through garbage. Was it really his qualities that attracted me, or his sparkling blankness that I could fill in? A knot of longing wriggled free inside me, and the feeling spread out and loosened my limbs.
Sunlight shifted over the handsome symmetry of his brow and jaw. I recalled how he sobbed when we broke up, scaring me because it was the one time I saw he needed me. His need gave me powers I didn't want back then.
"This is our little American compound." Eric parked the car by an oak-slabbed door in a whitewashed wall, after we veered off the highway onto a dusty cliff road nearer the beach. The high wall was topped by broken glass, jagged bottle shards set into concrete, decorative and menacing, and surrounded by bougainvilleas that hung deceptively over graceful arches and red-tiled roofs.
He pulled a bank of keys attached to a pine panel from under the car seat. "Oh, hell! I told Meredith to label the keys. I can never remember which key fits what."
He jammed key after key into the lock. Finally he found the right one and the front gate swung open. We passed into a garden with dry fountains and stern square-mouthed statues flanked by cactus with blood-red blooms. Seven or eight houses, each enclosed by their own interior walls and separate gates were staggered on the beach slope, surrounded by the outside wall that ran along the road and dipped halfway down the cliff to the beach.
At the second gate, Eric cursed Merredith again for forgetting the labels. I thought it certainly was suspicious, even insulting to me, that Meredith hadn't displayed the slightest bit of jealousy that Eric was taking me here for the weekend. Instead, batting her furry false lashes behind Jean Paul Gaultier half-rims, she had apologized for not accompanying us, saying she had to visit some architectural sites&emdash;and practically packed us off together. Was Meredith so sure about Eric, that she believed nothing sexual could go on?
"Help me out. Hold this steady while I push."
Eric shoved his shoulder, and his face turned red. He led me almost triumphantly down the steps to a house, sheathed in glass. It sprawled against high spikes of agave that framed ocean below and the sun setting upon the waves. Gulls drifted on air currents. There were swathes of horseshoe beach and pliant sands.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" I whirled, delighted, pulling back from the view of the sea.
Something stabbed my toe. I looked up and jags of lightglinted into my eyes. Broken glass from the top of the wall. Then I lifted my sandal and saw that I had been stepping upon apiece of clear glass that left little white scribbles on the cement. A bead of blood appeared. I bent to examine it.
I saw more glass. "Eric! Look!"
"What? Hold on for a minute. I'll get you a bandaid. I've got to unlock the door first."
"No, I mean look, right there next to the door&emdash;there's a broken window. Someone's broken in!"
"What are you talking about? Son of a bitch!"
Iron bars on the low slit window by the front door were wrenched out of alignment and a terra cotta brick, hurled through the glass, lay amidst shards on the kitchen floor.
"Let me see if I can reach the deadbolt."
He rushed through the house. The house was long and narrow with sliding glass walls, terminating in a dark-beamed bedroom on one end and a kitchen with dungeon-like slits one the other. His breath expelled with a relieved pop. Relief made him happy and excited. "Nobody's hiding. Nobody even got in."
He wrapped a bandaid around my toe.
There was a knock at the door, and we jumped. The crown of his head struck my jaw because I was leaning towards him. My teeth hit my lip.
A muscular blonde with a Dutch-boy bob and a furled face crowded the doorframe. She was about my age, clutching a dingy yellow dog with a very long muzzle.
"Eric, I'm so glad you got here. As soon as I came down from my place this morning to take Ralphie for his walk on the beach I saw the broken window. I drove right over to Oscar down at the groceria, and he'll be here to fix the glass within the hour."
"You're great, M.J." Eric hugged the woman, one-armed, looking boyish and awkward. The woman was dressed in drip-dry surgical greens. "M.J. is an anesthesiologist from San Diego, a good pal, our compound protector, as you can see."
"You mean I'm the only one lucky enough to have a schedule that lets me get down here during the week."
"Anna is an old college friend of mine, visiting from New York."
"So I heard." She spoke to me sharply. "Your lip is bleeding." I touched my lip with my tongue.
"Did Meredith tell you I said to be on the lookout? You know who it was who tried to get in, don't you?"
"Of course. Crazy Sarita. The same one who keeps trying to get in all the time." I must have looked puzzled. "There's this crazy Mexican woman," he told me, "who's been trying to break into homes in this compound for the past year, and M.J.'s the only person who ever catches her. Security's the biggest problem here. We have to work to keep the intruders out."
"Not that I can stop her," M.J. sighed. "No matter how many times I catch her. I'm the one who catches her because I'm the one who's here most often&emdash;"
"Nothing stops her," Eric interrupted, handing me a napkin to dab my lip. His voice grew light and animated. He liked discussing the thwarted break-ins. "I don't know what she wants. She eats our food and drinks our liquor and even sleeps here if she can get away with it."
"But what about the outside walls?" I pictured a sinewy woman climbing over the glass and scooping her kneecap like a melon.
"Crazy's Sarita's Mexican." M.J. waved her hand. "She knows the terrain."
Eric hummed to himself and unpacked the groceries, opening and closing the refrigerator. Then he checked to make sure Crazy Sarita hadn't stolen the television, earlier forgotten because it was hidden under the coffee table cube. He joked to M.J.,
"They say Crazy Sarita's a witch. Maybe she flies over walls."
He returned to the kitchen and began rattling mineral water ice cubes for drinks.
"Could be." M.J. laughed softly and jittered her dog up to her face until his long muzzle touched hers. The dog licked her, and M.J. pretended that the dog, Ralphie, was talking to her.
"Ralphie says he doesn't like this kind of excitement. Ralphie says whenever we come to Baja to relax we shouldn't have to worry so much about a crazy Mexicana breaking in."
"Or a not-so-crazy Mexicana," I answered, thinking of the tin-roofed shanties without electricity we'd passed on our way here.
"If I lived with no water or anything I'd want to break into gringo luxury for a little while too."
"Not crazy?" M.J. snapped. She dropped Ralphie hard. The dog thumped on the tiles. He yelped and his nails clicked. "Try telling that to poor old Susanna who came to clean my house two weeks ago and found Crazy Sarita in my bathtub leafing through magazines. She scared poor Susanna half to death. How would you like to come home and find someone sleeping in your bed?"
"Like the Three Bears," I murmured.
M.J. scowled contemptuously. It was clear that M.J. disliked me for being here with Eric&emdash;which was odd since she'd talked to Meredith and Meredith herself didn't seem to mind.
Could Eric be engaged in some strange menage a trois? It occurred to me that everyone I'd ever met named B.J. or M.J. was gay.
"I'll tell you another thing," M.J. said. "If I spot Crazy Sarita again she'd better watch out because I'm going to shoot her. I don't want her hurting somebody."
"You're kidding!" I said.
"I have a shotgun and I know how to use it."
"She's kidding," Eric said.
M.J. whipped her head, and said, "Nope." Outside, the sand blew in undulant waves across the terrace. Standing in front of the enormous glass windows overlooking the ocean, with the low sun shining through her drip-dries, the outline of breasts and muscular belly was visible. It was a massive convex construction that rippled as she repeated, "No, I'm not kidding. Tell them, Ralphie. I certainly am not."
"Creepy," I whispered, after M.J. left.
Eric shut the kitchen door. He trailed his finger teasingly down my neck. "Nothing to worry about though." He thought that I was talking about Crazy Sarita.
I said, "I mean M.J."
He straightened up and looked surprised.
After M.J. left, other Americans stopped by, audible first, with much clanking of keys and padlocks and laughter, then pressing their faces against the glass, clutching bottles of beer and Cuervo gold and bowls of salsa, beckoning us to accompany them.
"Can't we just be alone?"
"That would be rude." Eric urged me up a circular path to M.J.'s, directly overlooking his terrace where a dozen Americans with comic-strip names like April and Buzz and Jughead and Sundae were lounging in M.J.'s living-room on pigskin furniture, eating chicken-stuffed tortillas, and chattering with excitement about how Crazy Sarita had broken in again.
"Remember, Eric, the time she broke the back window and molded a sand dummy onto your bed?"
"And there was the time she scattered cactus on the floor."
"You seem to be her special love, Eric."
Eric laughed. "Well, M.J.'s had run-ins with her too."
Somebody put on music. April and Buzz started dancing, and across the room, M.J. made writhing movements with her head and shoulders. It looked to me like she was loosening a muscle cramp from moving furniture, the kind I get when I sporadically work out. Then her yellow dog began barking jealously, and I realized it was a come-hither to Eric. She was a brawny woman, hulking, she didn't work out fitfully for thirty minutes maybe ten times a month to a TV aerobics program like I did. She reminded me of a Harley motorcycle rider, the bullying swagger though, like me, she was a little old for that kind of thing. When she flopped in magisterial exhaustion onto the rocker, she patted her knee for Eric to join her, and he perched on her lap, and leaned back.
"You and M.J.? You're getting it on with M.J.?" I tried not to sound as accusing and incredulous as I felt when we returned to Meredith's and Eric poured the two of us nightcaps.
"We're just friends now. She wants too much. But M.J.'s not a bad person."
"What do you mean ' . . . now'?"
"I mean M.J. has a bad temper when she doesn't get her way. That's why we're just friends."
"Are we 'just friends' too?"
"Sure, don't you want to be? Meredith was never jealous of M.J." I followed him to the bedroom. In a tall mirror above the dresser I saw the scab on my lip. Eric opened the closet. He shook out the bedding, and stared at me hard. I stared back, and he seemed to shudder. He shook out more bedding and tossed it onto a living-room couch.
"Wait, you're sleeping there?"
"It's a comfortable couch."
What was going on? Within silent minutes, he fell asleep. If Meredith had known what she was doing when she gave me Eric for the weekend&emdash;or if she wanted me to take his mind off M.J.&emdash;she forgot to label the right key.
Eric slept and I opened the door and walked down the steps to the beach. Behind me, through the windows, Eric looked like a man in a display case. I unlocked the lower gate, and stuffed the clanky keys under a landing.
The surf rolled silver. The tide was going out, and the sand was scalloped. Soon I came to a ledge of low rocks and crept over them, strange spongey rocks, soft with piles of seaweed and trapped shells. The rocks seemed to breathe as I walked on them, letting out an eerie hiss.
"Sneaking off, huh?"
A hand brushed me. The surf's roar had obscured the scrunch of footsteps. I let out a low shriek. Behind me, Eric was rubbing sleep from his eye.
"Scared you? I woke up and all the lights were on."
"I stuck the keys under the steps by the beach-gate," I answered defensively.
"That's where M.J. always leaves them too. Let's take a walk."
"A walk to where?"
"Come on, Anna. I have something to show you."
He tugged at my arm and yanked me onto the packed sand. The moon was peaking, full and bright. I shut my eyes. Water laced my ankles. I cracked my eye-lids. Waves curled and I imagined fish swimming in backlit breakers.
"Where are we going?"
"It's a surprise."
We came to a sharp curve. Sand disappeared into a steep jut of rocks. Eric helped me to find sure footing on them. I clung to him.
The rocks were slippery and sharp. At the summit I leaned up and kissed him. I unfolded my mouth into his and pressed his bare back and shoulders beneath his shirt. A faint sweet sheen glossed his back. He pulled me forward and guided me onto a vast expanse of beach with luminous sands on the other side.
"Look!" He clasped my neck hard. His voice was no longer light, but rapt and sensual.
I turned away from the water.
"Look over there, over there, next to the cliff."
A tangle of car chassises and rusting bodies, maybe a dozen or more, lay streamlined in the moonlight like skeletons, naked carcasses gleaming, stripped of hoods and chrome. Above, the road twisted sharply. A sudden turnaround where drivers unfamiliar with the cliff must have crashed through the flimsy barriers and sailed into the air.
"These are car wrecks! You brought me all the way down to Baja, to this beautiful beach to see some car wrecks?"
"Shhhh! Don't think of it like that." He thumb rubbed me like an eraser. "These aren't wrecked cars, they're stolen. This is a hot car dumping ground, where local kids push them onto the beach to strip them for parts. I thought you of all people," he whispered, "would appreciate this. The streamlined quality. The way stripped metal just rises up out of sand. Like sculpture," he said.
"Like sculpture?" I felt confused. The entire beach, cliffs against sky, rocks against sand, even I, myself, was frozen and sculptured.
He cupped my breasts and pressed me down. I felt his tight jerk of attention and looked over my shoulder and caught the silent scuttle of activity between the cars. Like sand crabs, practically invisible, protectively amouflaged by darting movement and drab clothes, I saw a man. No, some boys&emdash;no, no, several boys&emdash;it was impossible to tell how many or how old because they were hunched crab-like in the shadows, although every now and then one darted forwards, picking and plucking inside a car.
"Eric!" I grabbed his shoulder. "There's some other people
here. A lot of them. They're watching us."
"Shhh! Keep your voice down, don't scare them. It's okay, they don't mind as long as you don't bother them. Act as if we don't know they're here . . ."
"But they do know. See, they're looking." I braced up on an elbow. The moon was bright, like a streetlight. His eyes were bright, like glass. He pinned me sideways. "Wait a minute, calm down. Don't be skittish. These are nice kids. They're only the scavengers, they're not thieves. The good parts of the cars have been taken already. Don't think of them as thieves. We can watch them right back if you want to. Do you? This is the kind of real life you don't get any hint of inside the compound." "You knew these boys could see us?" I said. That was why he had brought me here. "I think it's horrible the way you lock the Mexicans out. It's their country, not yours, and now you want them to watch."
"They're just kids, harmless kids. You don't know what you're talking about. They get a kick out of it, they live on the beach. I didn't really plan it, you're the one who came out onto the beach tonight&emdash;"
I jumped up, insides wobbly, my blouse unbuttoned, ready to run.
"Okay, if you really don't want to&emdash;" Eric pulled crumpled bills out of his pocket, wrapping them around coins to weight them in a practiced maneuver. "I never force anyone, you know."
He tossed the bills onto the sand. Obviously he had done it before. The boys fidgeted below, then clamored forward. "But I thought you'd like it. I know you'd like it, in fact. To be watched. To be broken into in front of people. I wanted you to see what I need. Even Meredith thought you'd like it."
The moon disappeared behind a cloud bank. I ran as fast as I could, losing my footing once on the rocks before I reached the beach gate ahead of him. I scrambled for the keys where I had left them under the landing, and when I couldn't find them, I started digging for them in the sand. Had they gotten buried somehow? Frantically, I banged the lock.
"Don't worry about it," Eric panted. He took off his shoes and dumped out sand. His feet were long and angular. "M.J. probably came back from walking Ralphie and took them. She knows my schedule. She probably took the keys just to be safe."
"Safe from what?"
"From Crazy Sarita. Wait here! I'll run down to Jughead and Sundae's and get up that way. Then I'll let you in."
"No!" I shouted. Sand clasped my ankles. He was already gone. The wind blew hard. I grabbed at a scrubby tree and started swinging up the cliff towards the enclosing compound wall not far above me, climbing arm over arm, grasping at rocks and plants. Overhead, the outside lights flashed on.
"What's Ralphie barking for?" M.J.'s voice shouted over the terrace.
I reached the wall. I remembered M.J.'s threats and her shotgun, and realized if she shot me everybody would believe that she'd mistaken me for Crazy Sarita.
But was there a Crazy Sarita? Maybe there was just me and M.J. I suddenly realized that Crazy Sarita must be M.J. Only M.J. claimed to see the Mexican housebreaker. Like me, M.J. was trying to break in. Maybe she would shoot Eric. I imagined him shattering with all the splendor of a car wreck.
My feet gave way. I let myself fall. I landed with cactus spines in my hands. The click of insects surrounded me, and the throaty clicking of night lizards. The wind blew. It lifted me. Then Eric's shadow loomed over me. He was opening the beach gate. He said, "Let's go down to the water. I'll clean your wounds."
My wounds were many. His eyes glittered, then reflected me back to myself. Closed windows.
I followed him. His back was luminous. Above, I spotted M.J. in silhouette, prowling the terrace. She raised her gun. Light gleamed. Shards fly.