Everyone said that Paul was born under a lucky star. The sun followed him wherever he went. There was seldom a dark cloud. He was loved. His friends were strong and his enemies weak.
He’d seen death. Some friends. Some family. It shook him but it didn’t stop him from following his destiny—pursuing the dream. Death comes when it comes.
He did well in practical things but they bored him. He excelled in business. His investments grew and his world grew with them. But none of this brought him peace.
He glimpsed the dream but he couldn’t grasp it. Then love struck. Edith was unlike anyone he’d ever met. She was gorgeous. She was smart. She was wise in ways that he was not. She is the key to unlock the dream he thought.
They married, had children and grandchildren. He loved them and they loved him. But, the dream that he couldn’t define eluded him.
There must be more, he thought. But, his inability to describe it, to grasp it, led to doubt. The dream is a mirage. Live in the now! he told himself. Be happy! Look at what you have. It’s enough.
But, it was not enough. The dream was the one thing he and Edith argued about.
“If anything can drive us apart, Paul” she said, “it’s this crazy dream you have that there’s some kind of paradise out there to be found. The purpose of life is to be happy. To be happy here, now, with what you have. Chasing illusions is a waste of time.”
Paul wanted to believe her. But try as he might, he couldn’t give up the dream. There must be more. I yearn for more, he told himself.
Edith thought a foreign trip would set things straight. Paul’s trapped in his shell like a clam, she thought. He needs to open the doors and windows of his old locked down house.
“Let’s do something,” Edith pleaded with him. “Let’s go to Mexico. It’s close. The people and culture will interest you. There are beaches and fine resorts. You can sit by the pool and read your books if that’s what you want to do. I can visit the galleries and shops. Together we can both have fun!”
“Nothing is different down there. Just read the news. It’s the same as here. Mexico is not the mellow paradise you think. It’s not an easy place. It’s a third world country. People there get killed or raped and no one cares. It’s run by drug lords. Sure, our politicians aren’t much better. I don’t watch the news here any longer either. But Mexico is not the answer.”
“Paul, you promised we could go to Mexico for our honeymoon. The passports arrived in the mail weeks ago. Please, let me go ahead and make the arrangements. You’ll see. It will make a difference.”
He knew by the look on her face there was no way to back out now. She had set the trap and it had sprung. Like it or not he had to go through with it.
“Go ahead,” he said then went back to his book. He found a solace in books that he could not find in life.
“Are you sure? Why do you always need to have a book in your face? Why don’t you understand,” she asked him, “that life itself is the best book?” He has this strange idea, she thought to herself, based on science that knowledge is higher than feeling, that consciousness of life is higher than life, that the knowledge of happiness is higher than happiness. That is what I have to fight against.
“For Christ sake, Paul! Pay attention.”
He didn’t look forward to the trip. He loved Edith. He knew what the trip meant to her. He owed her an attempt to enjoy it. It was their honeymoon. So, he would resign himself.
“Yea, I’m sure,” he said. He put the book down. He stood up and hugged her.
Edith tried to figure out what he was thinking but she couldn’t. Always a mystery, she thought. It doesn’t matter what the old fool thinks. I want this and we’re going to have it.
The resort was a beautifully constructed sculpture partially hung off the side of a cliff facing Banderas Bay. There were infinity pools and tennis courts, restaurants and manicured gardens.
Paul was astounded at the luxury. Edith took it all in stride. She’d read up on the Mexican Riviera. She knew they’d never make it to France. Mexico was the next best thing.
The first few days were an idyll, swimming in the pools, lounging on the beach, eating and drinking like gluttons.
The resort was not the Mexico Paul had envisioned. While Edith was having her nails done, he walked around the compound. It wasa compound. He discovered wire fencing along the perimeter that separated the resort from a Mexico more in line with his expectations. Of course, he thought. He saw the locals dressed in their spotless white uniforms enter the compound through a guarded gate.
One of the guards watched Paul stare across the fence.
“El resort no es el verdadero México. Que del otro lado esta el verdadero Mexico,” said the guard.
Paul’s Spanish was poor but he got the gist. The other side of the fence was the real Mexico. The resort was a fantasy. A tinge of guilt passed through him. He let it pass. Edith wanted her fantasy. Who was he to steal it away from her especially on their honeymoon. Just three weeks. He could handle three weeks. But, he wanted to see the real Mexico for himself. So he made a plan.
He met up with Edith at their room. They changed into swim suits and walked to the closest pool. It was usually empty. Edith was self conscious about the way she looked in her suit.
“I used to have such a great body. My God! When did all these wrinkles arrive? And my stomach! Ick! How does my ass look? Does this suit cover it?”
Paul stepped right into the pool. “You look just fine honey. Come on in. The water’s great.”
She did look fine. She jumped in and she laughed.
Seeing Edith happy made Paul happy. Laughs and smiles are contagious. Paul laughed and splashed Edith. She splashed him back. This was living! This was life, he thought. But was it? Was it really all there is?
He wasn’t there, not fully in the moment, not yet. He knew it was common sense to hang onto people who are fun and creative and passionate, artists, people like Edith. And to avoid borers. Borers are the great enemy of civilization, he said to himself. Hang on to passion and passionate people who enjoy what they do. Passion is contagious. There is nothing more contagious, not even smiles.
This much at least Edith had taught him.
He did, after all, have a connection to nature, didn’t he? He enjoyed the strange and colorful birds, the sounds of the ocean, the luscious plants and vibrant flowers. He could easily see himself as just the same as these brown skinned people that served the drinks and snacks. In some kind of mixed up family maybe. Or, was that going too far? He wanted find out. He had his plan.
In the meantime all he had to do was have fun. Edith splashed and laughed and he joined in, yet deep in the corners of his mind that dream, vague as it was, would not go away.
When they were in bed, Paul awoke to strange sounds coming from above. It seemed odd. He had been told that room 304 above them was vacant. He tried to ignore the sounds but they returned every night.
Edith looked forward to shopping in town. Instead of booking a guided tour, Paul hired a private cab. That was his plan. He told Edith he wanted to see some of the sights while she canvassed the shops.
“I’m happy,” said Edith, “to see you’re coming around. I’ll bet you have a different view of Mexico once you see it for yourself.” Paul was not so sure about that but he told Edith she was right. He wanted her to enjoy the day.
The driver let Edith off in a popular shopping area.
“Let’s meet for lunch back here at De Cantara,” said Paul. “The concierge at the resort said they have a great menu. How about 2 o’clock?”
“Perfect!” said Edith as she walked away from the cab.
Humans are alike in so many ways that inevitably you see yourself, your friends and your enemies whenever you watch strangers closely. It’s a game Edith liked to play. Paul played along but he wasn’t nearly good as she was. She was so thoroughly observant. She noticed the tiniest details. And she took her time. She pondered every alternative. This thoroughness drove him nuts. But it was also what he liked best about her and what he relied on. He preferred books to people. He read widely. Reading is the catalyst to creativity he thought. Whatever real life experience I need I can get from Edith. It’s better that way.
The taxi driver took Paul into the barrios, up past the river and into the hills. “This is where we live,” the driver said. “The tourists seldom venture this far away from the beach.”
A young mother stopped with her daughter by a food cart to consider the options. Paul wondered if she was quietly calculating what she could afford. The people he saw were simple and poor but a few had on fancy sneakers and several had cell phones. It was a far cry from the fancy resort or the restaurant where he would meet Edith but the people seemed happy.
A laborer moved river rocks from a large pile into a wheelbarrow to be hauled away. The taxi driver explained the rocks were for an underground drainage ditch to divert the rainwater that eroded the cobblestone street during the rainy season. Paul knew that in America this would be done with heavy machinery. Here labor was cheap. Hard physical work was the norm.
What is the difference between one life and another? What would it be like to be a simple laborer in Mexico? How different his life was from the life of the man he watched move the rocks, of the young mother, of the taxi driver. It would take a genius to fully understand both worlds. Most of those he saw looked happy, even the man moving rocks. The man worked at a slow pace that seemed to suit him. But how could Paul know what any of them really thought?
Further on an old man struggled along with a metal cane wrapped in black tape. The cane was repurposed from a worn out walker. The man could hardly put one foot in front of the other. That’s the endgame, thought Paul, to a life of moving rocks.
At the intersection of the road and the bridge that crossed the river, a cook in a white apron barbecued chickens over an open grill set up under a corrugated tin roof. Business was good. A steady stream of people walked down the hill across the bridge then back up the hill with their purchase. Paul caught a whiff of the pungent smoke. It brought back memories of the small country town where he grew up. Odd, he thought, how a memory can be triggered by tastes and smells.
On the street corner across from the bridge a group of locals were waiting for a bus. A man in a blue striped shirt with a work emblem stood at one end and looked at his cellphone. A few women sat on the front steps of the entrance to a business. Two young men with hard hats, probably construction workers, stood next to the women. A tall man with a baseball cap and shoulder bag and a few more women, one on her cell phone, were next in line. No different than any bus stop anywhere in the world thought Paul. A mixture of elaborate murals and graffiti covered the wall behind them.
It’s not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. Life depends on it. But we’re limited by that. Our intuitions are excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. But the deeper truths are not so easily accessible. Sometimes happiness breaks through and changes everything. Paul had a ways to go but he was working on it.
While the taxi drove Paul through one Mexico, Edith immersed herself in another. She found a world of ceramics, textiles, folk art, and exotic styles. Outside the shops she saw fishermen carry the days catch up the street. There were ordinary people, vendors, musicians, street cafes. Birds as colorful as the flowers around them flitted back and forth under an azure sky. Butterflies floated in the air while she walked from shop to shop.
“From what I’ve seen,” admitted Paul over lunch, “the locals here are honest and helpful to each other and to visitors as well. Things do progress more slowly here than at home though.”
“Is that bad?” asked Edith.
“No, of course not. But this is a tourist area. Things could be a lot different the further you get from town.”
“So,” said Edith, “you’re saying things here are not as bad as you expected? That’s a relief, Paul. Maybe you’ll enjoy yourself after all.” Edith winked at him and took a sip of her margarita.
Paul smiled. He wasn’t sure about that but it was true he’d made some changes in his views on Mexico. And America as well. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” he said.
Edith looked across the street at a strange character. He had a bald head with a scar, no shirt, blue jeans and work boots. He occasionally spoke to passers by. The tourists ignored him but the locals took him in stride.
“I wonder if that scar is a work injury or a war injury,” said Edith. “He certainly looks fit but he definitely has some mental issues.”
“J.D. Salinger had serious mental issues,” said Paul.
“Don’t go there,” said Edith. Paul always analyzed things through his books and authors. She was terrified at how he idolized Salinger given the sad life that man lived. It was the last thing she wanted to talk about on a honeymoon in Mexico.
Paul took a nap when they returned to the resort while Edith went to sunbathe by the pool. Once again he was awakened by noises from above. He dozed and woke, dozed and woke. Try as he might, he could not stifle his curiosity. He gave in and went upstairs to investigate. No one answered when he knocked so he tried the door. It was unlocked.
The room was dark and empty. Or so he thought until he saw the bed had been pulled away from the wall. He looked closer. Some tiles had been removed. He saw an opening into the darkness below. There was a noise behind him. He looked back toward the door. He saw a woman standing there. She was naked except for the tattoos, the most prominent being a snake that wound around her breasts. He could almost see through her as if she were ethereal.
“There is another world through the opening,” she said. Her voice was unlike any voice he’d heard before, raspy but sweet, soft but piercing. He was entranced.
He wanted to ask what world but the words stuck in his throat.
“The world that you dream of.” She knew what he was thinking. She drew closer when she spoke. She smelled like fresh cut flowers.
“How do I …”
“Come,” she held out her hand. “You must go through the opening. But there’s one thing you need to know.”
“What? What thing?” He could hear his heart pound out the beats, thump, thump, thump.
“Once you go through the wall, you can’t come back.”
He felt like she could see everything, all of his past, all of his future. He was excited but wary.
“I don’t believe you,” he said.
“I know,” she said. There was a slight discontinuity in her smile that disturbed him. “That’s been your problem all along. Not believing.”
“I need to have a look before I commit.”
He grew uncomfortable. He didn’t like making decisions without the facts. “Describe it then. What’s it like?”
“That would be cheating.” The snake around her breasts began to move ever so slightly. “I can say one thing perhaps. The world you live in now was once like the one on the other side of the wall, much much better than it is now. But it changed. Quickly. We must go or you’ll lose your chance.”
“What happened to this world?”
“Human nature. But don’t worry, there is a way around that if you come with me.”
Paul was tempted. She was certainly desirable. He was aroused but his lust made him ashamed. He was also frightened. He’d never been this close to the dream before.
“The same blunders will ruin it again,” he sighed. “Human nature and such.”
“Look, are you going through or not?” Her voice had changed, less soft and sweet, more raspy, more piercing. “I can’t wait any longer. I have another appointment.”
Paul couldn’t make up his mind. Should he or shouldn’t he? The minutes ticked by. Then the room went dark.
The next thing Paul remembered, he was back on the bed in his room. Edith was asleep beside him. She looked so relaxed and happy. Paul had always believed there was something poetic about sleep. Sleep seemed to be a place where he was able to work out all his problems safely, free from the ordinary things, in some original way, in a special language that he could only translate while asleep. Troubled sleep somehow opened a new world. Wisdom cannot be taught. It must be discovered. It was through sleep that Paul made his most important discoveries. His dreams were something that belonged to him.
When Edith woke up Paul told her what he’d seen.
“I know. I know. It sounds crazy but it was so vivid. I did see her Edith. And she spoke to me. She invited me to go through the opening but I couldn’t make up my mind.”
“It was a dream, honey. Take my word for it. You were sound asleep when I came back from the pool.”
“It happened. Just like I said. Look, Mexico is the land of miracles. You said so yourself. Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Remember? You even bought those miracle charms. Come on, let me show you.”
Paul took Edith to the room upstairs. The door was locked.
“That’s strange. The door wasn’t locked before. I just opened it and went inside.”
A maid walked by. Paul asked her to open the door. At first she refused but he was so adamant that she relented. She waited in the doorway while they went inside.
The room was empty. The bed was up against the wall. Paul pulled it out. The tiles under the bed were intact. There was no opening.
“I just don’t understand it,” said Paul. It seemed so real. The woman with her tattoos. The opening in the wall.” He sat on the bed and put his head in his hands.
“It was a dream, Paul. Come on, the maid is waiting for us to leave.”
On the way downstairs Paul looked back. The maid’s eyes were fixed on him. Suddenly she pulled open her blouse and he saw the snake around her breasts. It opened its mouth and swallowed its tail and the maid disappeared. He blinked. I’m going mad, he thought. Mad!
“What’s wrong honey? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Edith looked so concerned that he didn’t want to tell her anything more.
“Nothing’s wrong Edith. I guess I just woke up too fast from my nap.” What else could he tell her?
“Maybe you should lie back down?”
“No, I’m fine. Let’s go for a walk. We can have a drink by the beach. It’s about time for the classical music to start.”
There was a park like space set up by the resort near the beach with comfortable furniture where in the afternoon guests could sit to watch the ocean and listen to classical music projected from large speakers that surrounded the spot. A waiter patrolled the area offering drinks and snacks. Paul and Edith were surprised at how so few took advantage of this peaceful time. They often had the place all to themselves.
Today there was one other guest whose name was Roy and they struck up a conversation. Roy was an older man with blond hair and a full beard that was turning gray. Smiling blue eyes that immediately made you comfortable. American. He seemed anxious to talk and he was soon telling Paul and Edith some of his life’s stories.
“There are some things that make you proud,” he said wistfully. “A few times in life you find things where one might have to act. Once in Central Park a pigeon was dangling from a fish line stuck in thebranch of a tree. Several people were concerned but no one was doing anything. I noticed a back hoe nearby and was able to get the driver to hoist me in the bucket. I got the bird free with some applause from the folks looking on from below. Another time I remember coming out of a weekend camping trip on the North coast of California when I spotted a lamb with all four legs in a cattle guard, mom bleating nearby. It wasn’t easy to pull the lamb out but I managed. No audience that time but I felt good afterwards. Then, driving up a rural road in Mendocino County where I lived for awhile, I spotted a little burro on the outside of a barbed wire fence, mom braying. Getting the little guy back through the barbs was difficult. I think we’ve all done some of these things. These are the ones that stick in my mind.”
Edith and Paul were shocked at how quickly the personal stories poured out as if Roy was afraid of losing them if he didn’t put them into words. They hardly said a thing themselves.
“Do you want to know why I promote chess?” said Roy. He didn’t wait for an answer. “As a child with a semi-nomadic life, impoverished Okies on the move, little mind improvement was offered me. In Michigan the head of an Air Force Base paint shop taught me the game. My life changed that day. I saw strategy and planning as well as logic and patience swoop in for the kill. Most successful people I’ve met have a grasp of the game. The values of befriending a child through games and mutual interest cannot be surpassed. Before video games there was a guy around the corner who rebuilt old jalopies. Many a kid learned to pound out a fender, or re-ring a piston and listen to old war stories. These simple interactions made a better citizen. The creation of chess clubs gives elders the chance to observe possible troubled youth. A pat on the back is reassuring, roping in a bully to have new friends can alter a mind set. If we sit back and wait for someone else to befriend these kids, it’s never accomplished. We will get more gang members, more school shooters. The America we want back is up to us.”
The entire time he spoke Roy stared at the ocean. Classical music poured out of the speakers. “It’s like being at the movies,” Paul whispered to Edith. “He sounds like a liberal Charlton Heston with that booming voice.”
“What he says is very moving,” Edith whispered back.
They were interrupted when a tractor drove by pulling a spray rig. Suddenly they were awash in bug spray.
Roy laughed at the incongruity. “The way they do things down here is hilarious.”
“Or crazy,” said Edith coughing, eyes watering.
Paul and Edith went back to their room. They had to pack. They were leaving the next day. Paul tried to forget what happened or what he imagined happened in room 304.
“Can you get everything in the suitcases?” he asked Edith. “It looks like you went a little overboard on the shopping.”
She glared at him. “Don’t say another word. I’ll get it all in.”
The next morning they were sitting in the lobby waiting for the van to the airport when Roy showed up.
“I’ve got a gift for you,” he said. “Here. Have a safe trip home.” He gave them a box and left.
“What is it?” asked Edith as Paul looked inside.
“A chess set,” laughed Paul.
Edith walked out front to see if the van had arrived. Paul stayed in his chair. His ears perked up when he overheard the desk clerk talking about someone who died in room 304.
Paul walked up to the front desk. “Who was it that died? What was the name?”
The desk clerk was mum. Roy appeared behind Paul and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Roy. “Remember, there can be no resurrection without death.”
“Paul! Paul, wake up. You’re gonna miss the bus.” Edith shook him. “Come on, let’s go.”
Paul realized he’d been dreaming. Maybe everything’s a dream, he thought. All of life. But no, he saw what he saw. Something did die in room 304. His dream died. He grieved for the dream, but he killed it when he didn’t follow the woman through that dark space. He had the chance and he failed.
Edith was right. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others happy. Roy affirmed all of this with his stories. That was the idea he came to after three weeks in Mexico. When griefchanges into an idea, it loses some of its power to injure the heart.
“Come on, honey.” Edith was pulling him into the van. “Don’t look back or you might turn into a salt pillar.” She laughed and laughed and laughed. And Paul laughed with her.