The Pool at Chualteca
by MELANIE JENNINGS
On the tarmac at the Acapulco airport, after twelve hours of traveling and in the heat of late afternoon, I faint. Three elderly women surround me. I can hear their voices calling to the officials, Ayuda! La senora…ayuda! Ayuda! Their voices are so beautiful, I want to lie on the sizzling asphalt and listen to their singing. They are like the Sirens calling Ulysses, I think, and I want nothing more than to live my final days on their island. I imagine myself swimming there, each stroke through the waves blocking and unblocking the song of the Sirens like a heartbeat. I dive beneath the surface to see thousands of creatures, sirenians and prehistoric anableps big as sea turtles swimming alongside me. And just as suddenly, I surface again, feeling the burn of hot grit embedded in the skin of my hands and forearms where I tried to break my fall. I smell the tar of the asphalt and feel the wet drip of saliva on my cheek. When I open my eyes, the old women are grabbing their chests, their hearts, grateful to god that I have come to. Later, in the living room of the rented apartment near the zócalo, the Spanish radio tinkling over from the adjacent flat, I think of the incident on the tarmac as my trial run with the moment of death. I didn’t much care for the panic of fainting, but the Sirens and the sea were terribly fantastic. There are no visits to the doctor anymore. I am finished with all that. I know now it is a matter of months, perhaps weeks, depending on my strength of will. It is just as well. The doctors exhaust me. They try to be hopeful and businesslike at the same time. They recommend religion, family, clichés. I am trying to come to terms with death and wonder why doctors even practice, the body a vast mystery. I have read all the books, even well before I was sick, on healing, on positive thinking, proper diet, and exercise to prevent illnesses of all kinds. And I know those are good things, but when it’s all said and done, the body is an enigma. Sometimes it does inexplicable things. If we ever do finally come to understand it, we’ll lose something in the translation. Now that I’m here, my friends and family think I’m crazy for visiting Mexico again. “You’re too sick!” they say. I wanted to take the trip because I knew it would be my last. I wanted to travel to feel young again, to be the intrepid Johnna I always was, how brave everyone called me, even into my illness. But I wanted to die living up to the image I still have of myself, so I planned it anyway, all the while thinking I would never go. It was the planning I enjoyed, as if I were arranging my own funeral. When I dreamt of my last days, I imagined myself walking the dry, quiet streets of my favorite Mexican villages. I wanted to speak a language I love and die in its rhythms. Among the shells of my life—my hospital bills and financial business tangled and beyond my comprehension or attention, the dead hopes of my brother and niece, of my friends, what would happen to my house, or the cabin at the lake—it was unimaginable that I could die. In Mexico I feel as if I’ve left everything behind and am creating the death I want. I had an affair here once. It was just after the divorce when I went to Chualteca for a month to lick the wounds reopened again by the signing of the last papers. It had surprised me. Miguel Rosales de Rios. He was an accountant for the national bank in Acapulco, but he was writing poetry and living in a small room above a restaurant, though he could well afford better. Miguel had principles, what I felt my husband possessed very little of. Miguel and I had fun together. I had long forgotten about fun in the disintegrating puzzle I had waded through with Richard. Miguel sends me postcards every now and then, a foreign friend sending word of his world. He doesn’t know now that I am sick or back in Acapulco, and I know myself unlikely to tell him. I’ll miss the postcards. I have a recurring dream here, a nightmare, of El Lago de Chualteca, an elegant pool surrounded by promenades and columns that I once visited. I stand at the edge of it in glaring sunlight wearing a suit of armor. I am short of breath from the heat, the dark cavern of the suit like the inside of a furnace. On the surface of the water I see thousands of tiny eyes watching me, as if they are waiting for me. They are the anableps I studied at the lab, the “four-eyes fish” of Central America, dizzyingly surveying the underwater world and the outside world simultaneously. In my confusion and terror I remember the slick gloss of an old television commercial—a beautiful woman in a black swimsuit standing on the edge of a long pool. She dives into the pool, lithe and glamorous, her hair and muscles free in the cool water. I hear the anableps in the pool at Chualteca, their eyes and bodies knocking against one another at the surface. I want to escape my armor and dive into the water as well, release my body like the woman from the commercial. I struggle but can’t free myself. I think often of home and of my niece, Christine, and her four-year-old twin sons. I am not so fond of Christine—too much of my bullheaded brother in her—but her twins are delightful. Every afternoon in the weeks leading up to my departure, Christine and the twins would arrive, the boys flinging themselves from the minivan to run screaming through the house, opening and closing closet doors, stomping up and down the staircase. Christine tried to shush them, but each day I insisted the twins have free rein of the house and yard, even with the weather on the verge of winter. I sat in the window for hours watching the boys tease their puppy, even being cruel sometimes, while I sipped tea, Christine’s quilting programs on videotape in the background. Before I knew it, Christine would be up making our dinner, the television long turned off and the living room light fading into the gray of the yard outside. This is how I’m spending my last days, I thought to myself. It was both satisfying and wrenching. But something was still missing. During those last weeks I tried to figure out what was most important. There were the usual platitudes about family, friends, and meaningful work. And those, in truth, did mean something to me. I knew I could live without Christine, and some of my other friends and family. But it was hard to imagine life without the twins. I didn’t regret not having children of my own, as people often assumed when I got sick. They thought I wanted someone to take care of me, or that I would feel better facing death if I knew part of me were still living through my children. I didn’t feel that way. I loved that the twins were someone else’s, but still my blood. I wouldn’t want them to realize what was happening to me. I wouldn’t want to trouble my children as I was troubling Christine. The twins’ needs were so immediate, and could so easily be fulfilled, even by a dying woman, that I felt needed, and even a little in love with the twins. But I felt uneasy, as if providing for children was still too simple to describe what really mattered. I knew about the glory of the present, what all the Indian gurus and armchair American Buddhists spoke endlessly of. They were right, of course, but even beyond the sensations of each moment, wasn’t there something more? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The closest I could get was the feeling of waking up each morning. How different that was now, how finite, how each scent and color of those first few moments was just breathtaking, a fireworks show through the eyes of a child. I miss the lab. I miss my work, too, which surprises me. I had always wanted to work part-time but could not afford it after the divorce. I wonder now what was so terribly wrong with my full-time position. Now I realize how much I loved it. I helped create the lab in its early days, twenty years ago, when it was someone’s outrageous idea, a science lab open to the public, a working lab with scientists and live exhibits, and now one of the most successful attractions in the county. I think of my anableps in their tank. I wonder how Marnie, the young scientist I recruited from UCLA, is doing with them without my help. I went to visit once, shortly after I had to stop working, but it so depressed me to walk through the lab’s great hall as a visitor, a customer, that I had not gone back and had stopped answering calls from friends there. Instead, in my sleep now I dream of the pool at Chualteca and the anableps, and, although a nightmare, it reminds me of the lab so that I am grateful. On my second evening, there is a knock at the door. It is Teresa, one of the elderly women from the airport who had insisted I leave my information with her. Though I am tired, I usher in Teresa and offer her pastries and milk. It seems so natural and yet I know that in the States nothing like this would be likely to happen. Teresa lives only a few blocks over with her sisters, the other women from the airport, and one of her grandsons. Teresa comments on every aspect of the construction of the apartment, praising this and that. When I inquire, she reveals that her father’s construction company built the building when she was a child. She remembers the wooden frame and two large trees on the lot that had to be removed. Los arboles fueron muy grandes, m’ija. I enjoy simply listening. I love the intonations and melodies of Spanish. It is just so good to be here again, I think, sitting next to the open window and chatting with a new friend as if I’m starting afresh in a new city. Teresa says she wants to check on me, she can see that I am very sick. Her sisters and she have spoke of little else since they arrived from the airport. Perhaps, Teresa says, I remind them of Teresa’s own daughter who died several years ago of lymphoma. She had also had fainting spells toward the end.
I imagine Teresa’s daughter. I have a picture in my head of a lovely, enormous pink rose and a pretty woman falling gently through it. Then Miguel is there, sitting atop his desk with his arm extended, beckoning.
In the morning in bed I can’t remember the night before. My medications make me fuzzy. There is a water stain on the ceiling and I examine its shape, its layers of seepage a cumulus in the plaster. Children call to each other on the waking street below the apartment and I catch the faint smell of tuberose. The night before washes over me—Teresa’s enchanting chatter, the Spanish radio, and the lights from the street yellowing the terracotta floor tiles. I soak it in, each detail reminding me of the gloriously golden present of the Buddhists. I marvel at my good fortune. How I love waking up. Everything is on fire, just wild with color. Teresa and I visit the pool at Chualteca. From the cab up to the pool there are a series of stairs that Teresa helps me with. Once inside the hacienda, we must rest for a moment in the shade near a fountain where Teresa says it will be cooler. We sit and listen to the birds, so many of them, in the trees growing along the edges of the courtyard. Crisp yellow leaves hang from the lacy branches that sway this way and that from the weight of the fluttering birds. Teresa hums a Christmas song while her forefinger and thumb worry the velvet flap of her purse to the slow rhythm of the tune. I am anxious to get to the pool but my lungs haven’t caught up with my mind. I watch the relaxed faces of the other tourists returning from the pool. They stroll past, talking almost at a whisper, as if the pool has restored quietude to their souls. When I am ready, Teresa takes my arm and we start for the pool. I love how Teresa pronounces my name, Yonah. It makes me feel like a different person, someone who will visit the pool many more times. Teresa explains how the small town grew up around the pool, which she believes was once an ancient spring, possibly much larger than it is now. This may be why, she says, it is called El Lago de Chualteca—lago technically suggesting a lake, not this manicured and contemplative pool. As a girl, Teresa had picnics with her family here, before the government tourist agency regulated the hours and charged admission fees. Back then it was more of a park. In fact, Teresa was taken to the pool on her first date, chaperoned by her father, and she and the boy and her father had all walked stiffly along the pool’s perimeter dutifully discussing the weather. We laugh at this memory—now a chaperoned date seems like something out of a silent movie. As we continue to stroll on I am taken by the idea that the pool was once a spring, especially given its current opulence. I have never heard this before. I wonder if this is why I have come. Perhaps, I muse, I have been called by the goddess of this spring. As we round the final corner of the hacienda’s courtyard, the pool is at once magnificent and familiar. I remember the first and last time I rounded this corner, how Miguel had kissed my neck, as if presenting the pool to me as a gift. Now I am being led like a child because I am uneasy on my feet. Yet I don’t feel pitiful. I can smell the water, the algae aroma rising in the heat from the pool’s surface. Quickly, I tell Teresa of my dream, how it is both a nightmare and a long-awaited visit to the lab and my anableps. There is the beautiful woman diving into the pool, liberated from the angles of the sunshine. There are the anableps, thousands upon thousands, their eyes a great kaleidoscope on the water’s surface. How I feel they are waiting for me yet I can’t break free of the suit of armor. And the heat. The incredible heat of my skin and how I can’t breathe and there is no room for me in the pool anyway. Teresa whistles. It is an exasperated, measured, you-are-thinking-too-much-young-lady whistle. I laugh, embarrassed. Then I laugh harder thinking of Teresa, an old woman wearing a proper dark shawl in the heat of a Mexican day, whistling that kind of whistle at me and my dream. Soon we are both giggling like girls in a schoolyard. I laugh so hard at the absurdity of my own dream and Teresa’s whistle that I nearly trip over my own feet and begin coughing so that we must find a shaded bench and collect ourselves. Several minutes pass during which more laughter bubbles to the surface, then subsides, until finally we are breathing again, sighing and smiling, relaxed. This is it, I think. This is the life, and now death, that I want. The evenings pass one by one. I look forward to each, hardly bothering to do much during the day so that I save my energy for the warm twilight in which I walk slowly around the square, sometimes lingering near the sea’s edge watching the men and the colorful skiffs. Often I sit at my window reading, or watching the street and sky. I begin to settle in, really enjoying myself now. My life fades behind me as if each day I lose some hard-earned possession to the irrelevance of a yesterday. The cabin at the lake is a distant memory, where once it was a cherished dream I had finally acquired and struggled to keep. I feel unhinged from my former life, as if all this is what I have been waiting for without knowing it—spectacular mornings, short but lovely walks, a good friend, a small town. I am really living now. My only torture is the blink of time I have left, as if I am just a tiny anablep breaking the surface for breath, the spectacular blue sky flashing there once so that I am uncertain I have seen it before it is already gone.
MELANIE JENNINGS' award-winning fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Crab Orchard Review, Crab Creek Review, Redwood Coast Review, and Oregon Literary Review. She has been awarded fellowships from the Espy Foundation, Jentel, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. You can read more of her work at www.mjennings.com.