Some may imagine the work of an artist to be splendidly lazy, a mere excuse to fiddle with shapes and color. When you are a perfectionist, however, an "absolutely obsessive beast of the brush," as Agnes referred to me at times, the infantile pleasures associated with artistry become overshadowed with an urgent compulsion to create a flawless work. After months of self-inflicted, unrelenting pressure, a vacation can be the only way to stay sane. So each year, when the grass in New Kindle wept with raindrops, and the moss on the trees grew as soft and as thick as down pillows, Agnes, Ana and I would board an airplane for our annual visit to Los Tules on a quest for sun, relaxation and above all else, my sanity.
Upon our arrival at the resort, we rejoiced to see once more the great draping canopies of bougainvillea and hibiscus the size of our heads, their centers dripping heavily with the stuff of a greedy bumblebee’s fantasy.
Each morning we would breakfast on strawberries so fresh and fat that their crimson skin puckered tightly around each yellow seed, and mangoes swollen with juices, the color of which could put sunsets to shame.
Our afternoons consisted of purchasing tiny pink and white packages of Chiclets from sparkly-eyed children begging for change and of watching robust brown-skinned women twisting fine rainbow strings into intricately patterned blankets, as their little girls glued worry dolls onto multicolored hair barrettes. We would waltz down the streets, listening to the subtle symphony of foreign tongues drifting through the air- hot and thick with the salty smells of seasoned meats, sweaty skin and ocean water.
In the evenings at the beach, Agnes and I sat sifting warm grains of sand through our toes and watched Ana discover the soft sea foam with her little fingers. The sun gently lapped at her freckled nose and the sea threw lights onto her glowing amber curls.
"Come play with me, Daddy," she would call, "Mermaids and Titan!"
One evening, as we played, a rogue wave caught us off guard and rolled us like rag dolls in an explosion of bubbles and sand. When we reached the shore safely, Agnes’ voice trembled as she marveled at the miracle of my grip on Ana’s fragile arm in the slippery sea. Ana, who was only seven at the time, threw herself backwards into my arms like a fainting southern belle. She drew a dainty hand to her sun-kissed forehead, fluttered her oversized ebony eyelashes at me and exclaimed, "My Hero!" I laughed.
That was the beauty of Los Tules: anything could happen at any moment. At home, such a notion could keep me shaking under my bedcovers. But there, staring into the night sky pregnant with constellations, my techniques of organization and preparedness seemed out of place and awkward. To whatever worry I could still muster, the ocean whispered, "Huusshh."
Our experiences at Los Tules did not only consist of chance happenings and chaos. We did have routines that developed over the years. We frequented the same beaches, fishing villages and restaurants each year. Subtle differences could be observed every time we returned, but for the most part, our favorite places stayed much the same, and we found comfort in that. There was one place in particular that we unfailingly made time for every year.
"To Chi-Chi’s!" I ordered the driver, and within thirty minutes we arrived at the restaurant in the back of his rusted "chingadero"- a doorless taxi whose engine was as clunky and awkward as the sounds its tires made rolling over the cobblestone streets.
"You love Chi-Chi’s?" the driver asked with a broad grin as we exited the vehicle. Being already wise to the fact that chi-chis is Spanish for breasts, I shot him a sly wink as I handed him some red-hot pesos and stepped onto the pavement.
"Same as ever," Agnes nodded approvingly as we entered the ironically named family restaurant.
"When can we go see him?" asked Ana, darting her head from one side of the restaurant to the other as though she were already bored with her surroundings. While Agnes and I always remembered Chi-Chi’s for its creamy ’coladas and interesting locals, Ana would forever remember it as "the raccoon place." The owner, a stout man with a black centipede of a mustache, had captured a raccoon at some point in time and tied it up in the restaurant’s dank basement as a pet. Now, fish-fed and tame, it had become a local attraction for neighborhood children and newcomers alike, especially animal-obsessed nine-year-old newcomers, such as Ana.
"After lunch, Dear. We’ve already talked about this," Agnes said as we wandered over and found a table situated conveniently between the fully stocked bar and a window overlooking the beach.
"Hmmm… I think I remember that you liked the grilled salmon tacos here, Ana," said Agnes, "Zander, didn’t Ana like the salmon tacos last time?" I shrugged and Ana wrinkled her nose and continued impatiently kicking her small pink sandals, which barely touched the ground.
As Agnes and Ana sat studying the menu, I studied the faces. At home, I would have done the same for strictly artistic purposes, trying to find an unusual feature, or an intriguing wrinkle to steal and use to spice up one of my painted subjects. Here at Chi-Chi’s, however, work was the last thing on my mind, and because I knew from past experience that the place attracted patrons of unmatched eccentricity, I scanned the faces hoping to find an odd character to befriend. Just as Agnes and Ana found what they were looking for on the menu, what I was looking for walked up to our table in scuffed black steel-toed combat boots and a blindingly bright Hawaiian t-shirt.
"Jack Burson," he said, with a voice reminiscent of marbles in a grinder. "You folks look just pale and pasty enough to have a conversation with."
"Zander," I said smiling. "Pull up a chair." I shook his outstretched hand, with fingers that jutted out from his palm like overstuffed bratwurst, and turned to introduce Agnes, who shot me a lightning-fast look of disapproval before stating her name. Ana jumped onto my lap and looked at her reflection in Jack’s big impenetrable black sunglasses,
"I like your beard," she said.
"Well, I do too, so you can’t have it," Jack replied with a thunderous chuckle that seemed to tickle Ana more than his joke.
"What are ya drinking, Zander?"
"Oh probably a pina col-"
"No, I didn’t say what are ya sipping on like a little lady. I said what are ya drinking? What say a shot of tequila?"
"Sounds good," I said, feeling as though my testosterone level had just shot up a few notches from sitting beside such a monster of a man.
Jack and I became fast friends over lunch. We talked about our favorite places to visit in the village, his brief stint in the US military (before he was dishonorably discharged for sleeping with an officer’s wife), and political situations back home, which we both felt very similarly about. Each time I would finish a shot, he would have a fresh one already at the table. By the fourth, Agnes was clearing her throat with obvious and unnecessary regularity.
Each time I licked another pile of salt from my hand, without missing a beat, Ana would ask longingly, "Now Daddy? Can we go see him now?" Still caught up in good conversation, though, I kept delaying.
"What in the Sam Hell are you so bent on going to see, little darlin’?" asked Jack.
"The raccoon! Did you not know there is a raccoon in the basement here?"
"Hell, Honey, there’s raccoons in a lotta basements, but I don’t often come across someone who’s so excited to meet up with one."
Ana took his teasing in stride.
"No, silly, a tame raccoon, one that you can pet!" She turned to me again, "Daddy, you said when we finished lunch,"
"Ana, now the sopapillas are on the way. I can already smell the butter and cinnamon. Please be patient, just a little longer."
She grudgingly turned and went back to a game of table hockey that she and Agnes were playing with a beer cap and salt and pepper shakers.
"Man," said Jack, with a thoughtful pause, "I sure do admire what you do."
"What, painting?" I asked, a little amused.
"No, man, not that sissy stuff, being a dad. My father would have never taken me to some place like this. I guess that’s why I never had the courage to have one of my own," he said, looking down and following the condensation on his beer bottle with his bloodshot eyes. "Just never knew how to not fuck it up."
The sun was sinking as we finished the last of the dessert, and Ana, with a belly full of fried potatoes and coconut milk, leaned her head on my shoulder as she fingered curling pieces of purple cabbage left on her plate from lunch. Agnes softly nudged my ankle with her toeless sandal.
"Well," I said, arching my back against my chair, "looks like it is time to head down to the basement."
Ana’s eyes opened as wide as hard-boiled eggs. She leapt from her chair, grabbed Agnes’ hand and bounded towards the little red door, cheerily waving bye to the owner who stood wiping the barstools. Jack and I followed with tequila-laden feet down the cracked and crooked steps that led into the shadows of the basement.
"All that fuss for this, Little Miss?" Jack bellowed. His monstrous voice quieted the wet, echoing giggles of a few neighborhood children who played on the puddle-covered concrete floor. "Why, I’ve eaten better looking roadkill."
By now, Ana was not paying him the slightest bit of attention. She moved slowly, with great concentration, toward the bedraggled creature in anticipation of her turn to pet him. Agnes pulled a few caramels from her purse to distract the other children and speed up the process. It worked. When finally a small, scruffy-haired boy noticed his group of friends huddled around Agnes, he moved from Ana’s path. Her time with the raccoon had come.
The next thing I knew, Ana’s labored breathing and shrill yelps were mixing with the sound of aggravated growls and gnashing teeth.
A buzzing silence suddenly flooded the room, a thick drowning silence, and every tiny motion made around me seemed weighted and crawling. Perhaps it was the tequila, perhaps it was my slow artistic awareness, or perhaps it was the quickness with which the whole thing transpired, but as the raccoon bit into her, I stood and watched. I watched, frozen, as its nimble little claws, like knobby black fish bones, wrapped around her small thigh and I watched as the blood soaked through her white cotton dress, coloring the petals of the flowers embroidered upon it.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Agnes realize the situation, her mouth dropped heavily with a terror-stricken scream,
"Zander, get her!"
At Agnes’ panicked wails, Ana distracted herself from her attacker and looked up at me. Her eyes were wet and pleading and squinted with pain. It all happened in less than a second, but in that time I saw the look in Ana’s eyes change from fear to questioning to despairing disappointment at my laggard reaction. It was that look on her face that snapped me out of the sluggish daze that had taken over my entire body.
"Daddy!" Ana cried out, but before I could even reach her, a familiar black, steel-toed boot drove forcefully into the fat, mud-stained belly of the beast, dislodging him from her leg and sending him flying backwards into a pile of concrete blocks.
Agnes was pushing the children’s begging hands aside and running frantically up to us as I took Ana into my arms. The bite was bad. She didn’t scream anymore, and her eyes now looked incredibly hollow. She was in shock. We ran her upstairs to the bar manager, who could only offer us a big, brown glass bottle of iodine. As Agnes took down the owner’s information, Jack hailed us a cab to the hospital.
I waved to Jack and he waved back, as the dust thrown from the back tires of our taxi curled around his gigantic frame. While Ana sat limp and silent in my lap, with Agnes whispering reassurances into her ear, I realized the magnitude of what had just happened. In years to come, I would often wonder if it was some blessing in disguise. I would tell myself that maybe it happened so that I would quit drinking, or so that Ana would be more leery when dealing with strange animals, or so that Jack could get that boost of confidence he needed to start a family, seeing that he had performed a dad’s job better than someone who had already held the position for nine years. There’s no way I’ll ever know.
What I do know is that while Los Tules was a place of firsts for many visitors—first kisses, first ocean dips, first tastes of fresh coconut—for us, that day, it became a place of never again.
Never again would we watch the sun’s pink profile disappear into the crisp cleavage of the coastal mountain ranges from the window of Chi-Chi’s restaurant. Never again would we sink our teeth into the lime-seared flesh of fresh Mexican tuna. And never again—though now I was the one who waited patiently, obsessively—would my daughter, Ana, refer to me as her hero.