By Marta Palos
They met every night in Daniel's room he rented in a cheap hotel between the ruins and the small town of Tulúm. In Itzá's eyes the hotel was a palace and Daniel its prince. He also became her teacher, inexperienced as she was in the finer points of sexual intimacy a sweet and unassuming girl, happily unaware of her ignorance. She went to school until she was fifteen, she told Daniel. She knew that the ruins of Tulúm were old, but how long ago her ancestors had built the place she had no idea. But she was quick to laugh and she loved to dance, even when there was no music to dance to.
He didn't let her go to harvest chicle in the jungle. The ruins became their playground. He wrapped a piece of vine around his head and did his stomping act in front of the murals. Clapping her hands, Itzá joined him, and they went in single file around a stunted bush, bowing to the painted priests at every completed circle. When they got tired of the game, they fell on the grass, laughing like children.
A week later he married her before a justice of the peace in the tiny courthouse of Tulúm. The whole family came. For lack of space, the relatives sat on the steps of the building, the men drinking mescal, the women shedding tears for the bride. Itzá and her mother wore the embroidered dress of the Maya, her father a white shirt, and black pants worn to a shine.
"I don't know you, son," he looked Daniel in the eye before the simple ceremony. "I have no choice but to trust you. Take good care of my only daughter."
Armed with a marriage license, they drove to Mérida to get a Mexican passport for Itzá. Daniel argued with the bureaucrats, and finally got a tourist visa for his wife at the American Consulate. To change her status, he was told to start the paperwork with the INS within a week at the latest.
He flew his bride home to fierce February winds in snowbound Denver. At the airport he wrapped her in his winter jacket and drove home in his T-shirt.
He had three more days before he had to go back to work. On the first day he shoveled snow. A pile of three feet blocked the garage, and he needed the car to buy food and winter clothes for Itzá. She wore his sweaters and boots. The boots twice her size, she stumbled as she joined him outside, to take a close look at the white substance she called ice cream. She scooped up some but cried out in fright and hid her hands under her arms.
Daniel measured her feet, went out and came home with a pair of lined boots, an armful of turtlenecks, jeans, and a down-filled jacket.
"I didn't know you were so rich," Itzá said. "These clothes must have cost a lot of money."
"I bought them with this," Daniel showed her one of his credit cards.
"You can buy everything with this little card?"
"Not everything, but lots of things."
On the second day Itzá cried. Between sobs, she asked how long would the cold last. Not very long, he lied. On the third day he invited his closest friends, to introduce them to Itzá.
"Your mamá and papá and your brothers... are they coming?"
"No, they will come later."
"Don't they love you?"
"Of course they love me. But they live far from here."
Itzá stood small and forlorn among the guests. When Daniel closed the door after the last visitor, she said, "I didn't hear these people say your name. Hey, Swede, they said when they talked to you. What does Swede mean?"
He looked up "Swede" in his Spanish dictionary.
"Ah, sueco," Itzá nodded. "But why do they call you sueco?"
He tried to explain where his nickname came from. He tried to make her understand his ancestral heritage.
Daniel taught her how the appliances in the house worked. She fell in love with the washer and dryer, and wanted to use them every day. She asked Daniel to buy the Spanish edition of an American cookbook, and spent hours preparing meals he liked, even if the food tasted strange to her. To keep herself warm, she often ran a hot bath and sat in the tub as long as she could.
To ease her isolation from the outside word, Daniel introduced her to his next door neighbor, a retired English teacher, fluent in Spanish. But for fear of the cold, she rarely stepped out of the house.
Two weeks after landing in Denver, Daniel came home from work and found the house empty of Itzá. All the clothes he bought her hung in place in the bedroom closet, only a turtleneck, a pair of jeans, the winter jacket and the boots were missing.
On the kitchen table he found his Visa card and a note:
Daniel brought the dictionary to the table and set himself to translate the message. When he came to "viajar de mosca," his mind went blank. Viajar meant traveling, mosca meant fly, the insect. It began to dawn on him that the two together might refer to hitchhiking. He looked up "hitchhike." Mexican slang translated the expression into "traveling by or with the flies."
Laboring over the note for almost an hour, he finally had the message translated:
Christ, she took the longest route there was to Tulúm. He stared at the note.
There was no direct flight he knew of from Denver to Mérida, and he imagined Itzá being lost somewhere between Denver and who knows where. Once on Yucatán soil, she would be all right, but the thought gave him little consolation.
He got up and walked over to his neighbor. Holding onto a cane, the old man looked at him from the doorway with guilt in his watery eyes. Before Daniel could say anything, he held up a bony hand.
"I know why you came," he said, "but let me explain. Your wife and I had a chat or two over the fence. And then she came over this morning. She was crying. She told me she loved you, but she had to go home because she was so cold here, and she was homesick. I got a flight for her through Houston. She'll be okay. She's a smart girl."
"You had no right. You should have called me at the studio."
"The place I work at."
"You never told me where you worked at."
"Okay, fine. But you still could've done a number of things. Wait until I got home, for instance."
"She said if you knew, you wouldn't let her go."
"Why did you do this, for heaven's sake?"
"Why, wouldn't you, if you saw desperation?"
Daniel walked back home, lay down on the couch and let his sorrow take its course.
A few days later Karen called. Through their friends she heard of his marriage, she said. She also heard that his wife had left him.
"If you don't mind my asking, why did she leave?"
"Because of the cold."
"Oh. I don't blame her."
"She'll get used to it. I'll bring her back."
"She won't come back. I think you made a mistake. Some people you can't uproot, period. She seems to be one of those." There was a pause, then Karen said, "Want me to come over?"
"What for? So you can call me the dumb descendant of shrewd Scandinavian braves?"
"Oh come on, Dan."
Perhaps he should ask Karen over, he thought. She would console him, she might even cook dinner. They would cuddle on the couch and recall the times when they were still crazy about each other. Then they would end up in bed, and the cycle of spats and reconciliations would start all over again.
On the other hand, Karen had been right about him. Maybe it was time to take life seriously. He saw Itzá dancing barefoot in the rain, he heard her laugh. "Thanks for the offer," he said. "But I'm tired. I think I'm going to bed."
"At 6 p.m.?"
"You rest whenever you can."
"All right, have it your way. Have a good rest."
The next morning he called the design studio. It wasn't easy to get another ten days off from work after a month-long vacation, but he was a good logo designer, and they couldn't say no.
That taken care of, he booked a flight to Cozumel. From Cozumel he would take the ferryboat to the mainland, only a twenty-eight-mile trip across the Yucatán channel to Tulúm.