before the hurricane

He smiled into the darkness, letting a wave of nostalgia pour over him, bathe him in old memories. Sighing, he went back inside and finished the poem…”

by j.b. hogan

From Cancun, Mike Werth shared a taxi with a friendly, upscale American couple and the driver dropped them off just past the bus terminal in Playa del Carmen. After a quick goodbye, the couple hustled on to an expensive, close by resort while Mike looked for the Happy Turtle Hotel. With the aid of some helpful locals, he found it a few short blocks northwest of the bus station.

The Happy Turtle, unlike the more developed places closer to town center, was actually a collection of little wood and plaster bandas, or mini-bungalows, just a short stroll from the beach. After checking in with the office, Mike tossed his stuffed backpack on the mosquito net-covered bed and went in search of Amy Perry.

Amy and Mike had been friends since meeting at a language school in Cuernavaca. She was a mutual friend of Mike’s estranged girlfriend Jackie and they had agreed to meet in the Yucatan when Amy completed a ten-day medical exchange program to Cuba.

Amy was staying with girlfriends at the Hotel Caribe next to the Blue Parrot Café, one of Playa’s favorite on the beach watering holes. When Mike couldn’t locate the women right away, he sat down at one of the Parrot’s umbrella-covered tables and ordered a cold bottle of Superior.

While he sipped on the beer, Mike checked out the area around the Blue Parrot. On his right, running up from the light brown, sandy beach, was a web of white string hammocks strung between large trees – this for, Mike had been told, travelers who crashed for almost nothing right on the beach. To his left, just beyond the Blue Parrot, was a long undeveloped stretch which he learned from one of the waiters was a topless beach. That bit of information heightened Mike’s appreciation for Playa and he celebrated with another Superior. He was about halfway through the second beer when Amy and her friends found him.

“Hey, Mike,” Amy smiled. “You made it.”

“I did,” Mike stood to give Amy a hug. “Here I am.”

“Mike,” Amy said, pointing to a stringy-haired girl, “this is Kerri. She’s my good friend from the Bay Area.”

“How are you?” Mike said. Kerri looked down at the sand.

“I’m Paula,” a very tan young woman to Amy’s left did her own introduction. “Amy and I knew each other in Cuernavaca.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mike said. “Did we know each other in Cuernavaca? That’s where Amy and I met, too.”

“I knew her there before you came.”

“Oh,” Mike felt the chill of her exclusion.

“What ya drinkin’?” Amy tried to warm up the conversation.

“Superior,” Mike said, “my favorite Mexican beer.”

“I prefer Corona,” Paula looked away from Mike towards the bar up the beach.

“Well, I’ll have a Superior, too,” Amy said brightly. “How about you Kerri?”

“I don’t like beer,” Kerri said. Paula snickered.

“Here comes a waiter,” Mike announced.

While the waiter took their orders, Mike notice that in profile, the young man looked exactly like the Mayan figures seen in relief on ancient ruins in the country. He said as much when the man went to get their drinks.

“I don’t see it,” Paula disagreed. “How can you generalize like that. Every person is different. He can hardly be one of the old Mayans.”

“I’m not putting the guy down,” Mike said. “I think it’s cool. He looks like he could have walked right off one of the friezes from a ruin around here.”

“He might find that kind of stereotyping offensive,” Paula insisted.

“That is not what I was …” Mike began.

“H…here he comes back,” Kerri stuttered.

“Check him out, Amy,” Mike said.

“Alright,” Amy said. Paula rolled her eyes dramatically.

The waiter arrived with the drinks and while he was setting them on the table he and Mike carried on a simple, easy banter in Spanish. When the order had been dispersed, Mike gave the guy a decent tip in pesos.

“I kind of see what you mean,” Amy tapped Superiors with Mike in a mini-toast. “He was very Mayan-looking.”

“How cool is that?” Mike took a deep draw on his beer. “Can you imagine looking so much like your relatives from two thousand years ago? Just amazing.”

Paula didn’t say anything else about the waiter but she assiduously avoided eye contact with Mike the rest of the time they were all together on the beach. That was pretty much okay with him.

* * *

Amy and Kerri shared one of the Hotel Caribe’s little one-room bungalows that faced the main building. With the sun dropping behind the beach palm trees, Mike gathered Amy and Kerri and they walked uptown to collect Paula.

“Is there a special place up here you guys want to eat?” Mike asked.

“Any place is okay with me,” Kerri said amiably.

“I think Paula had a little café she liked somewhere close by,” Amy said.

“Sure,” Mike replied, the image of a completely touristy, costly joint flashing through his mind.

“Hey, guys,” Paula called out from a nearby doorway, shattering Mike’s fantasy of self-righteously storming out of some overpriced Ugly American bar and grill.

El Patio was exactly the kind of little local restaurant he always looked for when he came into a new Mexican town. A hybrid place where natives and travelers alike mingled to eat. Not too expensive, with good portions, and at least some semblance, some feel of local ambiance.

“I love this place,” Mike declared after a supper of queso fundido and corn tortillas and a few too many beers.

“Has Jackie gotten in touch with you?” Amy responded to Mike’s upbeat mood.

Kerri, busy finishing an enchilada with rice and blissfully unaware of any past history among the others, ignored the conversation. Paula, who did know, acted as if it was of no concern to her whatsoever.

“She said she might come out later this week,” Mike replied, “but I haven’t heard from her specifically.”

“She hasn’t called?” Amy wondered. Mike shook his head.

“I thought she might call me when I was in Merida.”

“I’m sure she’ll get in touch soon,” Amy reassured him.

“I don’t know.”

“She’d be foolish not to come out and see you,” Amy added. “You guys can work this thing out. I’m sure of it.”

“Yeah, well,” Mike glanced at Paula. She shrugged her shoulders.

* * *

Back at his banda, alone, Mike tossed and turned in his cot but couldn’t sleep. Flipping on the weak overhead light, he grabbed paper and pencil and indulged a recent impulse to write a poem for Jackie in response to one that she had written weeks earlier after a trip they took to the ruins at Teotihuacan.

“Your Poem (As If),” he scribbled down the title. For a few moments he sat still, staring at the poem, then the words came:

I carried around your poem
as if it were currency in some market of souls,
as if having it would transform, create the past.
As if it could change me into something,
something I might not be.

I concealed it, hid it away,
away from those who would steal
what few hieroglyphs remain my own.

He paused for a few moments, got a drink of water from a bottle he carried in his backpack, then walked outside the banda to take in a bit of night air. Somewhere in the distance he could hear music playing. A hit he remembered from long ago. He smiled into the darkness, letting a wave of nostalgia pour over him, bathe him in old memories. Sighing, he went back inside and finished the poem.
I guarded it, hoarded it, watched it,
watched it as if something would happen.
I watched it; I watch it still.

And it’s still there, between the pillowcase
with the other relics of my life.
Nothing has happened, yet,
it’s just ink and paper —
it’s still your poem.

It would work as a first draft anyway, he thought. He could work on it some more later. Slipping the paper into his backpack, he dug out a pair of swim trunks for the next morning and clicking off the light in the banda lay down in bed to sleep.

* * *

Next morning after breakfast Mike put on swim trunks, grabbed a towel, and strolled out into the tropical morning to find Amy and her friends. Walking across the warming sand towards the beach, he whistled softly, feeling unexpectedly happy.

While waiting for the girls, Mike enjoyed himself at the beach. He splashed around in the shallow water near the shore and discovered a busty gringa frolicking topless in the gentle waves just north of the Blue Parrot. The powerful Yucatan sun reflected brightly off the water but Mike was enjoying the surf and the girl so much that he didn’t think about the possibility of sunburn. By the time the girls got to the beach, he was already getting noticeably red.

“Ooh, Mike,” Amy came up to him at water’s edge while Kerri and Paula were behind putting their things on a sun-umbrella covered table several yards off the beach. “You’re looking a little lobsterish. You might want to be careful. Take a break out of the sun.”

“Ah,” Mike shrugged the idea off, “I’m having a great time out here splashing around.”

“You know best,” Amy said, “but you are getting more than pink.”

“I’ll be okay,” Mike laughed.

“Okie dokie,” Amy said, “then we’ll join you and do some splashing, too.”

“Great,” Mike said.

For the next couple of hours, Mike and the girls swam, body surfed and played in the ocean, coming on shore for the occasional cool and refreshing beer. By noon, Mike knew Amy had been right. He was turning bright red. He could feel the tightness of the burn particularly in his legs. After a lunch snack, he excused himself and went back to his banda to rest. He felt unduly tired and decided to crash out for a while.

When he awoke, it was nearly dusk and he was burning up. Everywhere. His face, body, especially the legs. And he had a high fever. It was a really bad sunburn. When the girls came by to invite him to go eat he begged off. Amy wanted to stay and make sure he was okay but he thanked her and told her to go on. During the night, the sunburn got worse and worse. He drifted in and out of a feverish sleep, the pain not allowing him to rest properly.

In the morning he was blistered up and when the girls came by to see if he wanted to join them on an excursion to the ruins at Tuluum he again declined. Amy was even harder to dissuade from watching out for him this time but with Paula’s help he was able to convince her to go and enjoy the trip.

All during the day, he lay in bed feeling poorly and drifting in and out of a fitful sleep. Late in the afternoon, Amy came by after the trip to Tuluum and brought Mike a bottle of water and some orange juice. She again offered to stay and care for him but he assured her he would be alright.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I’ll be glad to go get you something.”

“No, I’m not hungry at all. The water and juice will really help. And I have some snacks in my backpack if I really get hungry.”

“I’m sorry you got so burned.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Mike tried to laugh. “I’m the idiot who didn’t realize how hot this Yucatan sun is.”

“It’s really strong.”

“Was Tuluum great?”

“Wonderful, it was airy and with a beautiful view of the ocean. Just terrific.”

“That’s good,” Mike’s eyes closed involuntarily.

“I better go and let you rest.”

“Thanks for checking on me,” Mike smiled at her weakly.

“Kerri and I have to catch our flight out of Cancun in the morning and Paula is going to visit friends up at Isla de Mujeres,” Amy told him. “I hate to say goodbye like this.”

“It’s okay, I appreciate you coming by.”

“Maybe we’ll run into each other in Mexico City or Cuernavaca again.”

“Sure. Maybe.”

“Maybe with Jackie even.”

“May be.”

After Amy left, Mike lay in the dark of the banda thinking of Jackie, imagining that she still might call or leave a message. Lightheaded from fever and uncomfortable from the sunburn pain, he drifted in and out of consciousness listening to music wafting in from somewhere down by the beach. Someone was playing an old Doors album. It made Mike think of freedom and hopefulness, and he imagined the music must be coming from the neo-hippies camped out in the hammocks by the beach.

As he drifted off to sleep he allowed the nostalgia of the past to overwhelm him, take the sting out of his sunburned and presently unhappy situation. Playa del Carmen felt like it was in some sort of time warp, where the feeling of earlier days still existed, was still vibrant and alive. He smiled to think so and as he fell asleep his last thought was how glad he was to have known Jackie even if he would never see her again. Everything was going to be alright.

It took two more full days before the sunburn let up enough to allow Mike to travel. On the third morning after the girls had left, he took a bus into Cancun and bought a ticket for Mexico City. He still had friends in Cuernavaca and he would go see them, start anew. He would find someone else, either here in Mexico or back home. He knew there was someone else out there for him, he was sure of it.

* * *

Later in the year, some weeks after he had returned alone to the states, Mike read that Hurricane Hugo had ripped through Playa del Carmen destroying all the older places like the Happy Turtle where he had stayed. In the ruins of the hurricane, Playa had rebuilt itself in a more modern image. Everything was going to be fancy now, expensive and big. Large exclusive resorts would replace the quaint little hotels and such that were the last remains of an earlier age.

It saddened Mike to hear of the change but he had his memories. He had been there when things were still different, when there were still reminders of a simpler world. The old way might be gone but he still remembered how things had once been and that, poignant as it seemed at times, was all one could expect. It was sure better than having no memories of the old way at all. Much better than that.

Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Four
May 2017


J. B. Hogan is an award-winning author who has published over 250 stories and poems and six books: Fallen (short fiction), The Rubicon (poetry and short fiction), Living Behind Time and Losing Cotton (both literary fiction) with the Liffey and Tweed Press Imprints of Oghma Creative Media and The Apostate (literary crime fiction) and Angels in the Ozarks (non-fiction, local baseball history) with Pen-L Press: His next book, Tin Hollow (noir mystery), is due out from Oghma Creative Media in August 2016. When not writing fiction and poetry, he is a local historian and bass player in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. More from J.B. Hogan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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