By Bettyann Moore
Anywhere, Rhonda thought, I want to be anywhere, but here.
She had just left her mother-in-law’s house. No, ex-mother-in-law’s house. No, that wasn’t it. Former? Still? What did one call one’s mother-in-law once the tie that bound them is dead?
Rhonda’s head swam. She preferred the numbness of the last week. She aimed her car toward town, trying not to think. To feel.
She saw a sign, yanked the steering wheel, the cars behind her squealing their brakes as she crossed two lanes of traffic. An empty spot in front of the building, her first break in eons.
Fantasy Destinations the sign declared. Rhonda only saw the words “destinations” and “open.” She needed a destination. Now.
She swept into the tiny office, startling the young man whose eyes had been glued to his monitor. He barely had time to minimize the porn site before the wild-eyed redhead was upon him.
“M … may I help you?” he stammered. He couldn’t stand to greet her, not at that point.
Rhonda ignored him as her eyes scanned the walls behind him. Cool, blue-green water beckoned. Palm trees swayed. She could almost smell the ocean.
Never taking her eyes off one of the posters, she demanded, “Where can I go right now?”
“The Cayman’s are hot right now,” the young man said, spiel at the ready.
“But can I go there now?” Rhonda insisted.
The agent’s eyes went back to the computer, this time to the company Web site. The word “now” was a relative term, he figured.
“There’s a group tour that leaves on Thursday,” he said. “Six days, seven nights ...”
“No!” Rhonda said, slamming her purse onto the desk. “Now, I mean within an hour, two on the outside, not in four days.”
Rattled, the kid’s eyes went back to the screen. He was a kid, Rhonda saw. Barely out of high school. Not ancient like her at 30, but feeling like 60.
“Th … there’s a flight that leaves Hobby in, um, three hours, to Acapulco and a room at the Hotel de Gante,” he said against his better judgment. No one went to Acapulco when there was Cabo or Belize, and the hotel, he knew, was just shy of decrepit, despite its shoreline location.
“I’ll take it,” Rhonda said, pulling out her charge card, the charge card Kyle insisted she have when she much preferred cash or checks. She’d paid by check for the funeral and cremation and felt guilty doing so.
The funeral, something Kyle would have scoffed at, but his mother had insisted upon, was a travesty, at least to Rhonda’s mind. There she sat, conspicuously dry-eyed while Kate, her best friend, and Laurel, Kyle’s mother, keened like paid mourners. Stoic was the word that ran through her head. She was the stoic widow. Her only concession to grief was to clutch her stomach, her womb, where, she hoped, a tiny memory of Kyle lay.
She clutched it now as the young man prattled.
“Round trip,” he said, “will be $740. What day would you like to return?”
“There’s no returning,” Rhonda muttered.
“What’s that?” The boy looked confused.
“One-way.” Rhonda said. “Make the ticket one-way.”
The boy frowned, resisting the urge to say “Whatever,” and typed something on his keyboard. This broad is seriously bumming me out, he thought.
Rhonda ignored him and stared, unseeing, at the travel posters. Her mind registered sand. Sand led her to dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
At least she’d had her way with the cremation. Laurel, always the good Catholic, wanted burial in the family plot. Plot this, Rhonda had thought as she carried the urn of ashes up her mother-in-law’s front steps just an hour before. Rhonda couldn’t resist opening the heavy pewter container and, perversely, wetting a finger and dipping it into the gray, coarse powder and slipping her finger into her mouth. This, she thought then, is one part of Kyle you will not have.
When Laurel opened the door, the ash lay dry and tasteless on Rhonda’s tongue. She would have choked on any words, but no words were necessary. Through wary, watery eyes, Laurel accepted the offering and Rhonda turned on her heels and fled.
Ticket safely tucked inside her purse, Rhonda was fleeing again. After stopping at her apartment to throw a few things into a bag, she had just enough time to take a cab to the office to empty her desk. Grateful it was Sunday and she was free of the sad, inquiring eyes of her office mates, she searched for a box, then stood at her desk and thought, “Why bother?” Her eyes lighted on the “lucky” stone Kyle had insisted she have from their honeymoon in Nice. She scooped it up and dropped it into her bag, though in light of recent events, its luckiness held no sway. Then there was the picture.
Kate had taken it just months before. Rhonda and Kyle were walking through the Galleria and Rhonda had made them stop so she could adjust her sandals. She leaned on Kyle’s strong shoulder as she bent down, but Kate had focused the lens solely on Kyle. You could see Rhonda’s hand, though, resting on his shoulder, as he stared nakedly into the camera, his expression undecipherable, but ever so cute. Rhonda had pestered Kate to send her the image, but when she kept dithering, Rhonda had snatched away her friend’s phone during lunch one day and sent the image to herself.
Rhonda tore the picture from the frame and slid it between her passport and ticket. She scurried out of the building, feeling furtive, pursued, and climbed into the waiting cab.
“Hobby Airport,” she said, “And hurry.”
It was after midnight when Rhonda’s shuttle pulled up outside the Hotel de Gante. Up until that time, she’d stayed blissfully numb to where she was going or what she’d do when she got there. The Prozac she’d taken as she boarded the plane, helped. But now, as she held out a fan of Mexican paper bills and allowed the cabbie to take what was owed him, she realized that paying attention might not be a bad idea. She ignored the thought and stumbled to the desk, then up the elevator to her room, tipping the bellhop much more than necessary, she was sure. Inside, she collapsed on the bed, barely registering that it was a single, not a queen as she was used to.
She awoke to strange sounds outside her third-floor window, the smell of insecticide and the sight of a giant cockroach traipsing across the cracked ceiling.
“La cucaracha, la cucaracha!” The song sprang to her head even as she rolled to her side and fell – hard – to the floor. She realized as she lay there staring beneath the narrow bed at a dusty wine cork and a forgotten shoe, that “cucaracha” was pretty much the extent of her Spanish language prowess, despite two years of Spanish in high school and living in Houston for 10 years. What had she been thinking?
She hadn’t been thinking, of course, though unbidden thoughts raced through her head as she lay there, unwilling to crawl back into the bed. No one knew where she was. That was good. Rhonda didn’t need the sympathy, the trite religious platitudes, the ones that made her want to shout, “No! God didn’t call him home! He was home, with me!”
Some of the anger she’d been suppressing boiled up. Anger at Kyle for being across town when he should have been at work, for not hearing the wailing sirens. At the driver of the fire truck for not noticing the car that pulled out into the intersection until all three and a half tons of it had smashed into the driver’s side door. At herself for not dying, too.
The unshed tears came then. Rhonda wailed for hours, there on the cold tile floor. The housekeeper didn’t need a translator to know that the person behind the door to room 341 wouldn’t want to be disturbed. She left a stack of clean towels outside the door and continued down the hall, shaking her head. As the sun made its way across the sky, the shadows moved across the room and across the sobbing figure on the floor.
Necessity finally made Rhonda get up. She stumbled to the tiny bathroom, not bothering to turn on the light. After relieving herself for what seemed like hours, she groped her way to her purse where it sat on the nightstand. She pulled out the big prescription bottle, the one with the sleeping pills. She held it in her hand for a long while, then opened it with shaking hands. She poured most of its contents into her hand, then hesitated. She let all but two of the pills fall back into the bottle, threw them into her mouth and choked them down. Then she crawled back into bed.
It was much the same the next day and the next. Rhonda got up to use the bathroom, to drink a bit of water straight from the tap, to take a couple more pills. It wasn’t until the hotel manager, alerted by the cleaning staff, came pounding on the door and let himself in with the pass key – these touristas will put me into an early grave, he thought – that Rhonda finally started to come out of her stupor. She smelled. Hunger gnawed at her gut. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. On the plane? A slight cramp below her belly roused her further. This can’t be good for the baby, she thought. She opened her suitcase for the first time and pulled out a long, gauzy skirt and peasant blouse – both completely wrinkled – and let them hang in the bathroom as she took a very long, very hot shower.
Although she would have much preferred calling for room service, Rhonda recoiled at the idea of ordering over the phone; at least in the hotel’s restaurant she could point to what she wanted on the menu. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and incredibly fresh fruit, though, she made her way back to her now-clean room, stripped off her clothes and fell back into bed. She didn’t take any sleeping pills.
That evening, wearing the same clothes as she had at breakfast, she ordered a poached chicken breast, hot, crusty rolls and more of the fresh fruit – mangoes, papayas – she didn’t know what they were. When she got back to her room instead of falling into bed, she went to the window and opened the draperies for the first time. There, just across the busy boulevard, lay the Pacific sparkling under the light of a full moon, the white sands of the beach practically glowing. Rhonda stood there for a long time, forehead pressed against the glass, and vowed that the next day she would cross that boulevard, walk on that beach and swim in that ocean.
Amazingly, when Rhonda had packed her suitcase, she’d remembered to throw in a swim suit – an old one-piece that was too big on her now – and her favorite loosely-woven beach cover-up. Sunny yellow and reaching almost to her knees, it was more like a large shirt with giant pockets; Kyle had bought it for her at a shop in Nice when she’d complained about carrying a purse to the shore. The cavernous pockets could carry her sunglasses, a book, sunscreen, her wallet … Kyle called it her un-purse.
Rhonda smiled at the memory as she pulled on the robe over her suit. Her hands went automatically to the pockets and she was surprised to feel something in one of them. She drew out her hand and tears came immediately to her eyes when she saw what it was.
He’d made it out of shiny gum wrappers while she snoozed under an umbrella on East Beach. He’d woven tiny purple blossoms, long dried out and gone now, through it. When she’d woken up, he’d knelt down in the sand next to her and placed the crown on her head. She’d laughed at how serious he looked, but when he took her hand in his and declared, “Anyone can be the Queen of Hearts, but you, you’re the Queen of my soul,” oh, how she cried! Later, in lighter moments, she teased him about how she was the Queen of Soul, so he’d better not laugh at her rendition of R-E-S-P-E-C-T which she liked to sing to while she cooked.
“Oh, Kyle,” Rhonda said aloud, “what happened to us?” She admitted to herself for the first time that it’d been a long while since he’d said or done anything so silly and romantic. Was it two years, three, since they’d been to Galveston? Rhonda sighed and resisted the urge to crawl into bed. She dropped the crown back into the pocket, along with her room key and other necessities. After a second of thought, she also put the picture of Kyle in there, then fled the room.
Unlike the cloyingly wet air of Houston, the air outside her hotel was fragrant, warm, but refreshing. Rhonda negotiated her way across the wide boulevard and out onto the white sand beach. She noticed – and was proud of herself for having that much focus – that the young men who strutted around in skimpy shorts and tight swimming trunks watched her progress along the palm tree-shaded stretch along the seawall. Many made a “ch-ch-ch” sound through their teeth that she was familiar with around Houston construction sites. She was the only redhead on the beach; her white-white skin cried out “tourista!”
Ignoring the stares and things called out in a language she didn’t understand, Rhonda watched a group of youngsters wave diving. They stood knee-deep in the water and waited for a foamy crest to approach, then dove head-first into its depths. They came sputtering out on the other side, smiling and euphoric, ready for the next one. It looked like fun.
Although not a very good swimmer, Rhonda loved the ocean – its smells, its power, its beauty. Doing a little wave diving near shore, she figured, wouldn’t tax her abilities or her weakened state. She took off her robe and put it near a couple of women who sat watching their kids from a blanket. Mindful that a group of young men were shadowing her, though keeping their distance, she waded into the chilly water.
She was right: it was fun. She did it sloppily at first, but soon figured out the timing necessary to hit the wave just right before the next one was upon her. She was vaguely aware of the group of young men who had lined up next to her having every bit of fun as she. The waves, as first slow and gentle, grew bigger and began cresting sooner and coming faster. She saw a particularly big wave coming for shore and thought at first to turn her body against it, but knew it was a bad idea. Instead she dove headlong into it.
Almost immediately, she knew her timing was off. She also remembered, simultaneously, the undertow. It gripped her lower body and began its strong, silent pull. Her first thought was “Oh, shit.” Her second, as she thrashed and kicked impotently, was “Which way is up?” Her third, as her lungs felt near to bursting, was “Kyle.”
When she was eight, Rhonda’s father died in a fiery car crash just minutes after leaving his lover’s house. She was 17 when her mother died in her sleep of a massive coronary. Then there was Kyle. Not in her wildest dreams did Rhonda think she would die struggling and so damn aware. She realized that her hand had groped toward what she thought was the surface three times. Wasn’t that the limit in all the stories she’d heard? Once, twice, then three times … after that, oblivion?
Read Part II here.
Read Part II here.