BellaOnline Literary Review
Hummingbird by Lisa Shea

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By the Time the Boat Reached Las Palmas

Patty Somlo

Karen was standing on the beach, her bare feet wet, off-white linen pants rolled up, stopping above her calves. A turquoise leather bag hung down from her right shoulder. In her left hand, she held a pair of comfortable brown sandals.

The boys were trekking up the steep hill with Karen’s things. She could see them moving along the trail that started at the far end of the beach.

Karen shook her head and smiled. Originally, she had packed three or four times this amount but then reminded herself, “No roads. No cars.” Whatever she brought would have to be carried up.

Away from the water, the sand was blisteringly hot. As soon as she stepped on it, she started to hop, then sprinted the width of the beach until reaching the trail, where she bent down and put on her sandals.

Ever since stepping into the warm aquamarine water from the small motorboat that ferried her from the large boat anchored offshore, Karen hadn’t looked around. She’d been caught up in the thoughts tumbling through her mind, telling her this was insane. If she hadn’t brought so much stuff, she’d turn around and go back. But go back to what?

After securing her sandal straps, Karen started up the trail. The soles of her feet ached. Had she stayed on the hot sand long enough to cause blisters?

The question reminded her that in this isolated place, she was a long way from help if she got sick or injured herself. It was one thing to take risks when she’d been young and another to do this in middle age, old enough to know better.

She reminded herself to pay attention to her feet. The trail, she recalled, was rocky, uneven and steep. One could easily cut one’s feet, especially in open sandals. And wasn’t there a huge angry pig kept outside a little thatched-roof hut, just off the trail? Most days, Karen recalled, the pig was tied up, its rope too short to allow the beast to reach the trail. Some days, though, the pig got loose and was known to bite.

Karen couldn’t see the house or the pig and assumed she hadn’t climbed high enough. Already, she found herself panting from the climb and sweating, the sun beating down on her bare head from a cloudless blue sky. Karen desperately wanted a cold drink and wondered why she hadn’t pinned up her hair, since it was damp with sweat, making her feel even hotter. That thought made her smile, as she remembered her Spanish teacher long ago scolding her to never make the mistake of saying, “I am hot,” when she came to Mexico. Translated directly into English, the proper way to refer to one’s body temperature was, “I have heat” (Tengo calór). If instead Karen said, “I am hot,” the listener would think she wanted to have sex.

That thought and the unexpected smile reminded Karen of why she had come, forcing her to stop and turn back toward the boat. She had only walked a short way and still the view was impressive. Blue-green water shimmered up and down the coast. The sand was smooth and white.

Her heart rate, speeded up from the hike, began to calm. “Everything will be fine,” Karen whispered. “This is the same beautiful place where you fell in love.”

* * *

Karen had first come to Las Palmas twenty years before. Marco had told her the exquisite place was set on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Like paradise, he added.

That was all.

Marco failed to mention the lack of electricity and roads or that he and Karen would be staying in an open-air, thatched-roof palapa at the top of a steep and rugged trail. If she’d known this, Karen wouldn’t have packed so many clothes and art supplies in a large, heavy, olive green suitcase.

After they’d waded through the clear lukewarm water from the small motorboat that ferried them from the large tourist ship, Karen followed Marco across the sand. Very slowly, she trekked behind him up the nearly ninety-degree angled trail. Marco cursed the entire way as he balanced Karen’s suitcase hoisted above his head. Every ten feet or so, Marco would stop to rest, sweat streaming down his face, his loose white, short-sleeved Mexican shirt soaking wet.

Even before they reached the top, Karen began asking herself what she had seen in Marco. He was slightly overweight, his face too round. The past several months he had ignored Karen when they went out to parties, talking to women she didn’t know. She still loved his thick straight black hair and large dark eyes. But the desire she’d felt months back when they’d first planned this trip was gone.

Still, Karen loved Las Palmas. Marco hadn’t even begun to describe the place, though he claimed to adore it. He had first come to visit five years before, when an artist friend of his settled there for a time. Marco knew the Ortiz family from his many visits. The family owned everything in this small remote place, including the palapa.

That first morning, Marco trekked down the hill to a small, dark hut they’d passed the day before on their way up. That’s where the matriarch of the Ortiz family lived. Doña Liliana was a tiny woman, an inch or two under five feet, with a dark reddish brown face, deeply lined, and emerald-colored eyes. The first time Karen met Doña Liliana, the old lady stared at her with such a piercing gaze, Karen thought the she could see right through her.

Marco told Karen that Doña Liliana was a curandera, a traditional healer, as well as an outstanding cook. He didn’t reveal that Doña Liliana made money on the side, selling illegal, one hundred and fifty proof liquor that smelled like turpentine. This was the reason Marco trekked down to Doña Liliana’s house. From that moment until the morning he and Karen waded out to a small motorboat carrying all the things they’d brought and headed back to the city, to board a plane for home, Marco sipped that thick, white, sharp-tasting liquor every morning, starting at eleven o’clock. By mid-afternoon, Marco had gotten almost too drunk to walk.

When Karen discovered the truth, she was surprised to feel tears squeezing out the corners of her eyes. What had disappointed her was not that another man she’d hoped might be the one had turned into someone she didn’t really like. She felt bad because in such a romantic place, she was spending every day alone.

Being an artist, Karen was determined to take advantage of her stay. Every morning, she perched on a cliff midway down the hill and painted. She watched the local women carry trays down to the beach, covered with thick slices of warm coconut and mango pie. After several hours, she hiked down to the beach, taking a seat under a canopy, where she ordered one cold beer and lunch.

During those two weeks, Karen became acquainted with the small colony of American expatriates who lived in palapas perched on the hillside. Late in the afternoon she would sit on the beach and watch them bat a volleyball back and forth over a net torn in several spots. She didn’t know what the Americans did to support themselves or why they were here, though she’d heard the gossip. A few, it was said, lived on trust funds. One artist and his Mexican wife traveled to Alaska each summer and worked in the salmon canneries, earning enough to support them the rest of the year in Las Palmas. Two guys were rumored to deal in drugs.

Whatever the truth of the rumors, Karen made sure to keep herself apart. This was her nature -- to be alone, outside of any group, observing. She felt wounded by Marco’s drinking and his lack of interest, even though she’d lost interest in him, too. The demise of another relationship, after an unending string of them, discouraged her to the point of depression. The low mood turned her even more unsociable than usual.

Karen couldn’t be sure if the Ortiz boy was interested in her or just wanted a green card so he could legally live and work in the United States. Nicknamed Chele because his hair lightened to a dusty blond from the sun and his brown eyes were flecked with gold, the oldest of the Ortiz’s brood of six worked nights waiting tables at a small restaurant with an outdoor patio, midway up the hill. Since his days were mostly free, he sought Karen out as she sat on the cliff with her brushes and watercolor paints, trying to capture what she saw.

Chele liked to stand behind Karen while she painted. She hated this, but didn’t know how to tell Chele without hurting his feelings. He claimed he had turned eighteen the previous May. Karen looked him over, trying to decide if he was telling the truth, and realized it didn’t matter. Even if Chele were eighteen, Karen still had nearly thirteen years on him. She wasn’t in the market for a man anyhow. That’s what she would have told Chele, if he’d made his intentions known, which he didn’t.

* * *

Karen realized that the boys carrying her luggage, cardboard boxes, and foldup metal easel had gotten far ahead by now. Looking up the steep trail, she couldn’t see them. She remembered now that the trail wound back and forth in several long switchbacks up the hill.

She started hiking uphill again, pushing herself to keep going. Fifty-one this year. While she didn’t think of herself as old and people were surprised whenever she admitted her age, Karen knew coming here now wasn’t the same.

By the time she and Marco had gone to Guadalajara after that two-week stay in Las Palmas, they were barely speaking. Why then, after listening to a wonderful singer and guitar player in a small crowded café and walking back to the hotel, breathing in the warm humid air, had Karen let Marco make love to her? Thinking about that night, Karen remembered that she downed several glasses of wine, two more than her usual limit of one. The air, as she recalled, smelled sweet from something blooming. Purple and pink bougainvillea trailed down the stone walls. The place made her want to paint. Or make love.

Who could have imagined she would get pregnant from making love with Marco that one last time?

He had driven her home from the airport, instead of taking her back to his place that night. She couldn’t recall if he told her during the ride or after they got to her house. Heavy rain streamed down the windshield, light streaky from oncoming cars. She couldn’t remember how he’d put it, whether he said they shouldn’t see each other for a while or that they shouldn’t see each other any more.

She hadn’t spoken to him since coming home, not even after she missed her period and began to worry, though the anxiety seemed foolish. She was thirty-one years old and had taken chances before.

When she got the results, Karen knew she wouldn’t keep the child. But did she have a duty to tell Marco?

Karen remembered those days being very dark. It felt so pathetic to be pregnant with the child of a man who didn’t love her. She didn’t love him either but that had been hard to admit at the time.

Marco paid for the abortion and drove her there as well. Afterwards, she didn’t see him again. She had her paintings and drawings of Las Palmas, along with photographs she’d taken, and proceeded to paint the place, as if she had stayed there a long time.

* * *

Karen stopped again about three-quarters of the way up the trail. She allowed herself to turn around and take in the view. Her mind had been so mired in the past, filled with regret, she was surprised to feel a sudden burst of happiness. Palm trees swayed in the soft breeze. Waves broke onto the damp tan sand, then edged into where the sand gleamed white. The breeze licked the sweat on her neck. Whatever came of this adventure, she would have this view to wake up to each morning, for however long she stayed.

Funny, she thought, that she was reminiscing all those years back to Marco. Because she had come back to Las Palmas on her own, every winter after that first visit, to escape the rain that started falling in September and barely quit by July. At first, she had thought of Marco and felt lonely, seeing couples on the tourist boat, their arms wound around one another, as if separating might be too painful. She had envied them. But in her cynical way, she also assured herself they would pass through that loving stage and then nothing about the other person would seem attractive or right.

By the third visit, she had made Las Palmas her own. She knew the expatriates who’d stayed a good long time and most of the Ortiz family. She had turned Chele’s interest into a friendly shared joke. Many of the locals stopped by to look at what she was painting and smile and remark how beautifully she had captured their home. They referred to her as La Pintura, since everyone who spent time in Las Palmas needed to have a nickname.

She never imagined that one day it might enter her head to live here. But she had been burned by love again. This time, the wound refused to heal. In Robert, Karen believed she had finally found the man she would marry and stay with until one or the other of them died.

She had even invited Robert to move into her condo, with its wide living room windows overlooking the river. The one thing Karen felt happy about now was that she had never asked Robert to accompany her to Las Palmas.

Thoughts of Robert replaced the long-distant memories of her visits to Las Palmas over the years. Watching the palm fronds wrinkle in the breeze, she realized that in her gut, she had known Robert would leave her. Wasn’t that the reason she kept this place a secret from him? Hadn’t she always known she would come back alone, to heal and experience what she couldn’t find away from here?

Robert cheated on her. It had taken a long time to say those words to herself and even longer to confront Robert. The crazy part was that she had seen them together. In the park, not far from her condo. Robert’s lover lived only steps away, down the pathway that ran alongside the river and up the hill. Spotting them that first day, Karen tried to tell herself the woman was only an acquaintance.

Then Robert put his arm around her waist.

He disappeared for long stretches of time, claiming to be running errands but coming home empty-handed. Arriving home, he talked and talked, barely letting Karen get in a word.

She waited for Robert to bring up the affair. He never did. Neither could she. She prepared herself for the day when Robert would leave.

* * *

Karen shook her head, bringing her thoughts back to where she happened to be. She knew the boys would be waiting at the house, wanting to know where to leave the boxes and suitcases, but mostly anticipating how many pesos she would give them. Instead of dwelling in the past and the pain those memories brought up, she tried to picture the house, its one wide open space containing the kitchen, living and dining rooms, and the small bedroom off to the side. In the days after Robert confessed he was in love with someone else, Karen spent hours, in between crying bouts, picturing herself in the Las Palmas house.

* * *

Two years had passed since the April day she signed the papers. At the time, she didn’t know whether she would live in the house or rent it out to vacationers, coming down a few times a year. Manuel Ortiz, patriarch of the family that owned three-quarters of Las Palmas, managed the place for her. He was surprised when on one visit she announced that she was considering staying permanently.

“You will miss the city,” he told her, his eyes looking away, as if it would be an insult to gaze directly at her. “It is nice for a week, two weeks, not to have electricity or television or all the things you are used to back home. To live here without them forever, that is something else.”

Darkened and wrinkled from the sun, Manuel’s forehead, cheeks and chin contained a map of the years he’d spent in this quiet place. Karen feared Manuel was right but wanted an escape. She reminded herself that there was all of Mexico to explore, including Mexico City, as modern, crowded and exciting a place as Manhattan.

In response to Manuel, Karen simply shrugged.

“I will see how it goes,” she said.

* * *

Omar, the man everyone in Las Palmas called Burro because he hauled whatever heavy furniture or item needed to go up or down the hill for a fee, had delivered a full propane tank to Karen the day before, so she could now enjoy a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. She sat in a wooden folding chair outside the house, gazing at the early morning view of the coast. Three months had passed since she made that nearly breathless, sweat-soaked trek up the hill, the boys toting her boxes, suitcases and easel. She thought about how frightened she had been of living here. She was surprised that three months had passed, and she felt more content than she could recall.

Karen painted every day. Several times a month, she took the tourist boat back to town and delivered finished canvases to four different galleries and shops. Those visits let her walk down modern streets and gaze into the shop windows filled with clothes and dishes she didn’t need. Sometimes, Karen treated herself to lunch or an early dinner, watching the tourists at an outdoor café.

The last thing she expected on the Thursday morning she took the boat to Playa Azúl and delivered paintings was to see someone she’d known back home. What she had grown to love about living in Las Palmas was the way her past seemed to have died. She felt lonely at times, without a man in her life, and no close friends in whom to confide. But the scenery and being able to spend her days painting or sitting on the beach and swimming in the warm sea made up for that.

After delivering the last painting, Karen headed to the beach. She stepped off the sidewalk onto the sand, then bent over to slip off her brown sandals. Straightening up, she shifted the sandals to her left hand, her fingers curled over the straps. A few scattered wispy clouds floated in an otherwise blue sky. As in Las Palmas, the sand was blindingly white.

Plowing through the deep loose sand, a red woven bag hung over her right shoulder, Karen kept her head down, occasionally stopping to gaze at the water and the handful of scattered people, mostly shaded by colorful umbrellas. Midway across, with several yards of dry loose sand between her and the damp strand where waves broke, Karen stopped.

Her gaze jumped from the man to the woman in the chair beside him and back again. He looked older. His companion looked terribly young. She had long red hair, not black, like the woman Karen had seen him with that day near the condo.

Before she had a chance to turn and hurry back toward town, she heard him shout, “Look who’s here.”

For a split second, Karen knew she had a choice. She could turn back and return to her solitary life. The hurtful past would remain where she had left it, in a world where she was no longer a part. The other choice was to stay put and acknowledge the man she had once hoped to marry.

Before she made up her mind, she heard her name.

“Karen. What a surprise.”

He stood up and walked toward her. She could see that he was still a good-looking man, with warm brown skin and large, nearly ebony eyes, though he’d cut his lovely black curls short. He had on baggy blue trunks that brushed his knees and a loose white short-sleeved Mexican shirt, hanging open.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, standing a few feet away from her. He leaned in and she grudgingly let him plant a kiss on her left cheek.

“I could ask you the same thing,” she said, pleased that her words emerged without a hint of emotion.

“On vacation,” he said. “We’re staying in a hotel right on the beach.” He pointed north to a line of tall white high-rises. “We came down here to get away from the other Americans. It feels too much like home in front of the hotel.”

Karen kept her gaze focused where Robert had pointed. She would never have stayed in a hotel like that, even if she could afford it.

“And you,” Robert said, breaking into her thoughts. “Where are you staying?”

Karen let her gaze move from Robert out to the horizon. She checked in with herself, pleased to discover that the overpowering attraction she’d once felt for him was gone.

“Oh,” Karen said, realizing that she’d been off in her head, while Robert waited for a reply. Instead of answering, though, she asked him, “Are you going to introduce us?” She nodded her head in the direction of the red-haired woman.

Robert frowned and quickly looked away. Karen didn’t know why introducing this woman to her made him uncomfortable but his hesitation and the unhappy look on his face told her he would prefer that she go back wherever she had come from.

“This is Zora,” Robert said, moving over to the woman’s chair and placing his hand on her narrow shoulder. “Zora, this is Karen.”

“Nice to meet you,” Karen said. She watched as Zora nodded and smiled.

Looking at her watch, Karen said, “I’d better get going,” as if she had an appointment to keep and was anxious about the time.

“Are you staying nearby?” Robert asked. For a brief moment, Karen feared he might suggest they meet somewhere for a drink or dinner.

“No,” Karen said, at the same moment she turned around.

“Have a great rest of your vacation,” she shouted, her head momentarily swiveled around. She quickly turned back and began to plow through the deep soft sand toward town.

She marched ahead, fueled by fear. Her mouth had gotten dry and sweat was running in two thin streams down the sides of her face. Though she had planned to stop at a café for a bite to eat, she kept on going. She didn’t stop until she’d reached the harbor where the fishermen kept their small motorboats and she could bargain with one to take her back to Las Palmas.

It wasn’t until she was sitting on a narrow wooden bench, her hands clutching the boat’s sides, that she let herself think about Robert. For two years she had lived in Las Palmas and he had finally vanished from her thoughts. Why had he shown up now?

She took a deep breath and scolded herself to calm down. I am safe, she silently reminded herself. Her gaze traveled across the water to the white stucco houses with their red tile roofs, climbing the hillsides above the shore. He can’t take this away from me, she assured herself. This is mine.

By the time the boat reached the waters off Las Palmas, the sun had sunk behind the hills and the water shimmered mauve. The boatman slowed the motor and gradually brought the boat in close. A few yards from shore, he turned the motor off.

“Here we are, Señora, at Las Palmas,” he said. “A beautiful place, no?” He waved his arm in a wide arc.

Karen took a moment to savor the pink-tinged water and the still bright sand.

“Yes. It is beautiful,” she said.

She stepped out of the boat and took her time, wading through the water. The sand felt warm from the late afternoon sun.

Instead of forging ahead, she turned, facing north, the direction from which she had just come.

“I’m staying here, Robert,” she shouted, then turned around and hurried toward the steep, rocky trail, not concerned that she wouldn’t make it home before dark.

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