MARCH 29, 2020
Javier picks them up from the airport in a long silver bus. A parabus he says it’s called. It is six in the morning and Guatemala City is just waking up. She drinks coffee out of the Styrofoam cup Javier has brought her while David talks to him in the front seat. Javier works in administration at the Universidad Fernando Marroquín and he knows David from last time, when David, a filmmaker, visited to help set up the film school. Now David is here to teach a three-week directing course. In the front seat, Javier, the university’s de facto tour guide, tells David about places to go. He recommends a hotel they should visit during their trip, built in a colonial mansion whose owner, a Spanish count, buried his cheating wife alive in a wall.
“In a wall?” she says from the backseat. But neither of them seems to hear her. All through the rest of the drive into town, though, she can’t get this image out of her mind. Had the count placed the countess somehow between the bricks of the house? Had he embedded her whole in between the rafters and the beams? And how had she been found? Had she been found? Was she still there? And if she wasn’t, when they’d found her, whoever they were, had she tumbled out of the bricks whole, arms stretched open wide to greet them?
“You’re awfully quiet. Something wrong?” David turns around from the front seat and squeezes her knee, his hand startlingly pale against her brown skin. He treats her like this sometimes for no reason, as if she is something fragile already cracked once; a thing that could, at any moment, shatter. She both appreciates his concern and worries that he will grow to resent her for her fragility and leave her. She takes another sip of her coffee and shakes her head. He offers a reassuring smile and she smiles back then looks away out into a January sunshine so bright it blinds her.
Their hotel room in Guatemala City, located above an upscale shopping center in Zone 10, is startlingly elegant with black slate floors and a big dark wood dining table at its center, marble countertops and an enormous television mounted on one wall. A matching couch and loveseat sit sandwiched around a table with a string of giant beads at its center, wound up like a ceramic snake. There are two desks, one for each of them, a luxury they cannot even afford in their own apartment. There is also a bedroom door that actually closes, the right size for its frame, not like the one they have, which expands and shrinks depending on the weather. A bed so big they’ll have to swim across it to find each other. A bathroom with a shower fixed so that water rains down from the ceiling. Some people live like this all the time, she thinks and pushes this sentiment down as far as it will go. She takes a deep breath, turns to David, and smiles.
“I guess it’ll do.”
But David is already off, unpacking his suitcase, organized with a military neatness, and placing everything just so on the shelves of the giant walk-in closet. Through the open bedroom door, she hears him encourage her to do the same. She takes her time, savoring every step, letting the quiet seconds pass by. Back home she has, for a long time, had the feeling that she was being swallowed, but slowly, at the exact pace of the passage of every moment in her life. Here, the feeling has not exactly gone away, but she is free to ignore it, the way one is free to ignore all the facts of one’s life back home when one is not there.
She sets her laptop out on the table next to her manuscript and the books she’s brought to read. She hopes they will inspire something that has otherwise gone dormant inside her. When she tries to access the part of her that used to write, all she can do is envision a long road the same color as the dusty plain it cuts through. She has been working on her book for so long that she can no longer remember quite why she started it, and when people ask her what it is about, she no longer knows what to tell them.
The manuscript, which traces the lives of three black American writers in Paris in the 1940s and ’50s, had been due to her editor five months before. She had not been able to finish it on time and she wonders now if she will finish it, ever. Years ago, it had been the agreed–upon thing that between the two of them, she would be the star, that David would support her until her moment came. Now, she imagines him sometimes downgrading her in his mind, not loving her less but making small accommodations for her inability to fulfill her potential. Instead of becoming an artist, she’ll get a job answering phones. He’ll be the one who gets to live out his dream, while she saves up her vacation days to follow wherever it leads him.
After they unpack, she takes a shower. It’s then that she notices something strange. In the red streaked stone bricks the shower is made out of are the first three letters of her last name, camouflaged by the rock but distinct, spelled out by the veins themselves. She calls out to David who smiles when he sees what she is pointing to. “It’s like they knew we were coming.” She doesn’t smile back. In recent years, David, having achieved moderate success in his field, has grown used to seeing his name out in the world in places where he didn’t put it. But she hasn’t. She doesn’t like the way it feels, the world reflecting herself back to her, especially here in this city, so far away from her home.
In the morning, before David goes to the university for orientation, they have breakfast in the shopping center downstairs. The hotel restaurant is located on the first floor — they have vouchers — and they eat the kind of meal they can almost never afford out in L.A.: rich scrambled eggs, toast with homemade jam, fresh tortillas, white cheese and fruit. A waiter lingers over their table refilling their coffee and offering recommendations for things to see in Panajachel, a tourist town several hours away, near Lake Atitlán. The hotel restaurant has a sister hotel restaurant there, the waiter tells them. They must go. The waiter leaves and comes back with a card with the hotel’s name printed on it and a phone number on the back for them to call. David puts the card in his pocket and promises him they will visit. She knows David well enough to know he isn’t lying. His desire to make strangers happy far exceeds her own.
After breakfast, he leaves her to teach his morning class. She goes back up to the room. She opens her laptop, stares at what she has written for a while, closes it again, and lies down on the sofa with the book she has brought open on her face. She thinks she should write down all of it: the ride home from the airport, the suite, the count and the woman in the walls, her name spelled out in the shower tiles, the restaurant and the waiter and his card. Instead, she falls asleep. And this is how David finds her in the evening when he returns, her mind blank, her throat so dry, she can barely speak. This is the end, she thinks when he looks at her, bright from his time in the classroom, looming over her prone body on the couch, his face twisted in concern. You didn’t do any writing today? He will say. Not any at all? His tone will be studiedly neutral and though she will search underneath it for deeper meaning, all she will find will be solicitude.
When she was little, she sometimes traveled with her grandmother, a woman who’d saved cleverly for retirement. From Houston, they flew to Manhattan to see Rent, The Lion King, Les Mis, a different Broadway show every year. Each time, she remembers standing up in the corners of the Sheraton in Times Square, peering through the curtained windows at the street a million miles below, wondering who it was she expected to be looking up at her. For the first 22 years of her life, she had never not felt as if she were waiting for this person. Halfway through the 23rd, she’d met him.
And now he has found her splayed out across the sofa in the middle of the day in a sweatshirt and flannel pants and he will think she doesn’t do any work, that she’s not worth anything at all. He tugs down on the pants’ elastic waist places a kiss on her naked butt, then asks if she wants to go get something to eat. “Just let me shower and lie down for a minute,” he says. “Teaching is tiring. They expect me to remember all their names.” He doesn’t come out again for almost an hour. She breathes a sigh of relief when she stands up to check and finds him in the bedroom, fast asleep and stretched out crosswise, body flung across the bed.
She Googles Countess, Count, buried alive, wall, Antigua, Guatemala. She finds a short, researched article detailing the wedding, which took place in 1716. The countess — though she was not the countess then — wore ivory shoes threaded with beads. In the town around the wedding venue, there had been feasting for days. The townspeople were celebrating the joining of two fortunes: his, which was vast and never-ending, and hers, which had dwindled to almost nothing. She reads about how the countess smiled demurely on her way up the aisle, as if she were bearing a secret. Some people speculated she was pregnant, but others supposed she was only privately celebrating her good luck. Now that the marriage was taking place, her dominion would be almost the entirety of Spain and many of its colonies. She had done well for herself and the little town where she was from was very proud of her, though other people from different towns said she was a witch.
Embedded in the article is a portrait of the countess, so lovely she looks poured and cast from a mold. Every part of her is of a piece, down to her glossy black hair, wrapped around her head. There is something in the dead countess’s face that feels immortal, and it is impossible not to grant that thing a certain measure of respect. David steps out of the bedroom in a towel, sits behind her on the couch, and wraps an arm around her waist, peers at the screen, then looks away. “What are you doing out here? I’m about to take a shower. Want to?”
She unwinds his arm from her body and kisses the pale meat of his palm, scraping her teeth against the skin there. A few minutes later they are both under the water. Over David’s shoulder and through the bathroom window, she can see lights from the street, the sky over the city grown dark. She imagines everything she can see through the glass is suddenly hers, imagines reaching out her hands to grab it, gathering it all up to her chest and feeling it beat against her heart.
She dreams a strange dream that David is sinking into a bright blue lake, stretching his hands up to her. Beneath him, the water disappears, smooth as a sheet being pulled down through a hole in the earth. As he starts to suffocate and drown, so does she, the weight at the center of their lives ebbing, leaving everything around it to swing wildly out of orbit. She fights her way out of the dream and wakes up to the sounds of the city below, creaking and belching through the open bedroom window. The fear in her body is like thousands of tiny hooks, the color behind her eyelids a solid nuclear orange. She wades across the bed to where David lies, and he folds her into him. “That’s the stuff,” he says, rubbing her naked back. “That’s what I like.” He sits up, suddenly tense.
“Wait, who is this?” he says, still asleep.
Her stomach knots itself together. “What do you mean?”
“Who is this in bed with me now?” He sounds alarmed.
“What? David. It’s me.”
He tilts his head down and lifts her chin up toward him as if he is going to kiss her.
“Oh,” he says. The look on his face is supremely disappointed. She can tell this even in the dark.
“Who else would I be?” she whispers.
He mumbles something unintelligible and rolls over and away from her. She stays up for a long time after that, staring out into the dark. She can’t find it in her to feel jealous of the person he was dreaming about exactly — dreams aren’t that logical, she knows, it could have been anyone — but she also can’t shake the feeling that someone somewhere far away is laughing at her. In the morning she reminds him of what he said, but he claims not to remember.
She goes with David to work and takes a tour of the university while he teaches his class. The school, founded 20 years before by a group of wealthy businessmen, has been built in the depths of a ravine and is surrounded on all sides by upward-sloping hills covered in trees. A man named Luis takes her and an elegant-looking visiting professor to see the library. Luis is tall and brown and flamboyant, pointing out details in the rare books room with great sweeps of his arms. His face is like a sun shining down on her and in the light of his brilliance, she feels herself relax.
From a cabinet, he pulls down a 1784 edition of the Western world’s first encyclopedia and encourages her to touch the centuries–old paper. She runs her fingers across the flaking glue where the pages are coming loose from their binding, turns over the first worm-eaten leaf. On the second page, she sees it: her name inscribed in the border of a map of the Honduran coast, made to look like a squiggle or a slip of the pen. She gasps. Luis turns from where he is showing the visiting professor an iron bust of a university founder.
She blinks. Her name doesn’t disappear. Will they think she did this? Somehow stole her way into this locked room and tagged her name in the pages of a 250-year-old book? She closes the book and excuses herself, leaving the room to wait for them in the hallway. The air conditioning is stronger here and she looks at her arms, watches the goose bumps appear along her elbows one by one, seeds just beginning to sprout.
She and David spend that weekend five hours away in the sister hotel the waiter recommended with the sister hotel restaurant. Lake Atitlán is bordered by small colonial towns, each of which they visit, one by one, on a boat. The tour fee covers a personal guide named Miguel. Miguel takes them through first San Marcos and then San Pablo and then San Pedro and finally his hometown of Santiago, sitting on the slanted prow of the boat as it slices its way across the lake. “Each of the towns has its own character,” he tells them, and she hears another hired guide far off in the back of the boat saying the same thing.
San Marcos is full of white American hippies and sunny, roofless coffee shops. The hippies glare at them grandly. Other than the Americans, the town is empty because, Miguel explains, on weekends, when the children don’t have school, their families take them to work on coffee farms. She and David buy coffee. They watch a very, very young woman make, spin, dye, and weave cotton. They look in vain for something to buy from her as well but neither of them needs a blanket and in fact the goods in her store are priced in American dollars, at prices they can’t pay. The other colonial towns are crowded and close and hot with steep roads mobbed by tourists and tuk tuk cabs.
Lately, an odd thing had been happening. She can hear an echo every time she speaks, as if there are two of her, one slightly off stage or having stepped just out of the frame. This other draft of her is always still speaking after she has stopped speaking and always also somehow seems still to be moving after she has stopped moving, as if it adheres to slightly different physical laws. She isn’t quite sure what to do with this extra self, but she does wonder if its gradual appearance and strengthening means that a part of her is disappearing or dissolving. She feels less and less like herself all the time, which makes her wonder whether this other version of her feels more and more like her, and what will happen when it finally overtakes her.
Underneath Lake Atitlán, they learn from Miguel, is an entire Mayan city. National Geographic came once to photograph its excavation. Back at their hotel in Panajachel is a museum dedicated to what the excavationists found there that they did not take with them. When she visits, she finds a single stone pot that looks as if it has been eaten away by something, as if it has partly turned into coral.
Elsewhere at the hotel, there are hammocks and ping-pong tables and foosball and long gardens and stretches of grass. She lies in a hammock with her manuscript in a bag underneath her and her book on her chest, listening to the click-click-click of a rotating sprinkler arcing water high in the air. A very strong wind blows, hard enough almost to flip her out of her hammock. She envisions a tidal wave, an earthquake, a dormant volcano suddenly awake. The wind pushes the sprinkler water over her, and she sits up.
Two workers stand in one corner of the garden in the uniform of the hotel — light blue shirt and black pants, navy baseball caps, black shoes, walkie-talkies affixed to their hips. She nods as they walk toward her. Hola, she says. They nod back. And then one of them says her name. “What was that?” She says back to him as he passes, in shock. He winks at her. She rolls out of the hammock, which has become uncomfortably hot and runs to find David who is no longer in their room. He discovers her, minutes later, balled up on a chair in the corner. “I was so scared,” she says, then apologizes immediately and stands up. From speakers embedded somewhere near the hotel, smooth jazz plays. “It’s okay,” David said, and it was. He understood. They were like this, vacations. You went away and became someone else for a while, so that when you went home, you could be more yourself, but better, and for longer.
“Have you been writing at all?” David says to her at breakfast in the hotel restaurant, but she does not respond. At the center of the table is a burst of flowers, a little clay pot of sugar with the name of the hotel on it, a red candle, a shaker of pepper and one of salt. The tablecloth has red stripes. Yesterday, they were the only people in the restaurant but today it is full of students from a neighboring town who clamor for a view of Lake Atitlán through the restaurant window, trying to see the invisible city beneath its waves. The restaurant’s dining room is lined with mirrors so that the walls look like windows looking out over a world identical to their own with everything reversed. While David pays the bill and checks them out of the hotel, she turns back to her book, about a group of American friends who live in Panajachel. She had not been aware that this was what the book was about when she started it back in the hotel room in Guatemala City, but she chalks it up to one of those coincidences that happens to her occasionally and that she is smart enough and mature enough and aware enough to know means nothing at all. The strangest part is that two of the characters share her and David’s names. She has read the book once before, is actually rereading it and she feels some part of her must have known this even if she doesn’t remember knowing it. In the book, the two characters that share her name and David’s name wander into a small town near the water to stay for the weekend in a hotel. That is as far as she has gotten, because every time she tries to read further, something interrupts her and this time it is David who is telling her that the shuttle back to the bus station has arrived, and that it is time to go.
On their way out of the city, the bus stops at a church. It isn’t a real church, but a makeshift shrine someone has set up in the back of a store, built in honor of the Mayan god Maximón. Maximón has been styled to look like what the devil would look like if he were real: a bleached wood mannequin with a cigar jutting out of his mouth like a dagger, a mustache that ends in two sharp points. Maximón is the light and the dark, Miguel explain. He will give you what you ask for, but he will exact strict payment in return. Men — of course, only men — sit in a circle around him and wave guns and cigarettes that fill the air up with smoke. While David goes inside with the other tourists to watch the ceremony, she stands by the door outside, watching two skinny kittens wrestle in a trash-strewn lot filled with roosters. Across the way is a little tienda whose proprietor stares through her, as if she isn’t there. Adelante Miguel had said when they reached the building and she had smiled at him and stepped out of his way, pretending she didn’t understand. Now, outside all by herself, feet together in the dirt, she closes her eyes and allows herself to wish for something on the statue of Maximón. She wishes for wealth, for fame, for great and infinite power. She feels a kind of tingling in her chest like nothing she has ever felt before. A warm, dark sensation like her organs slipping over one another. Later, on the bus, thinking of what she has done, she is appalled at herself. She feels ill.
They stop again for 30 minutes just outside Guatemala City, in Antigua, so the passengers can take a bathroom break and stretch their legs. The bus pulls up to the curb in front of a hotel called the Casa Santo Domingo. David reads in Spanish from text painted onto a low white wall. The Casa was once a monastery but now it is a hotel where sometimes weddings are held. Visitors can still visit the crypt where the skeletons of some of the old monks are kept, their bones on display under Plexiglas. The monks, when they were alive, made chocolate, and one can visit the chocolate shop too, see the chocolate being made the way the monks did it, by hand with a grinder and a mill.
While they wait for the others, she and David climb through the ruins up to a broken tower where, through metal bars that used to prop up a window, she can see the black volcanoes that ring the town. The Casa Santo Domingo grounds continue on forever, cut with narrow spiral staircases that lead to landings that lead out over nowhere. The monk skeletons in the underground crypt are small and incomplete and they look like the bodies of dead children, something she must keep reminding herself that they are not. In one corner is a square hole filled with miscellaneous human bones and she reads a plaque explaining that older skeletons were placed there when the crypt became too full. Ossuary, she repeats to herself and shudders.
In a far corner of the ruins, she and David come to a vast open space, all set up with stone chairs draped in beautiful white sheets, near the altar where the monks once have held mass. At the head of the space is an enormous crucifix, brightly painted, Jesus hung up on it with his face in blunt agony, blue eyes pointed up at the sky. Someone has laid out colored sheets over the area where the congregation is supposed to sit, left them hanging from the ceiling. The sheets drift on the wind like sails. David says her name. She turns.
He is standing just in front of the altar, smiling at her with an odd smile she has never seen before. In fact, his entire face looks different now, has become a face she doesn’t recognize. His clothes are strange as well, old-fashioned but not dusty in the way they should be for the age they apparently are. He’s wearing something like a colonel’s outfit, military and handmade and tailored to his small body. His shirt is black and gold with tassels on it. It looks much more expensive than anything they can afford.
“What are you wearing?” she says. She laughs. So does he. She looks down at her own clothes then and smiles. She is no longer in the jeans she’s worn almost every day since she got here, a size too big, but cheap enough that she’d bought two pairs. Instead she has on a white satin dress with delicate cutouts at the hem, hanging lace trimming the bodice and the sleeves. The most beautiful ivory shoes. She pats her head and finds her hair wound up and around her head in a single, smooth long braid. She is dressed for a wedding. They both are. But a royal wedding. A sumptuous wedding of the kind neither have them have ever attended. A kind that, when she was a little girl, if she had been a different person, she might have imagined she would someday have.
She beams. Around her voices rise along with the sound of music and the heat of heavy dust. Somewhere meat cooks on a grill. A band starts up or has already started its music drifting in from somewhere else in waves. People whose faces she doesn’t know populate the waiting chairs. At the head of the aisle, beneath the crucifix, she sees now, there has been, all this time, a priest with a cigar in his mouth, a mustache that ends in two points. And David standing there, no longer David, but something magnificent and otherworldly, beautiful and rich in that uniform that so becomes him. He nods to her from where he stands. Through her lace veil, she watches him motion for her to come closer. She complies. All through the monastery the music swells, as the countess makes her slow way down the aisle.