Read Part I here.
By Bettyann Moore
Resigned, peaceful even, Rhonda got ready to take in that fateful last breath. Something, though, was fighting against the powerful tow at her feet; her head hurt almost as much as her lungs did.
The next thing she was aware of were brown, concerned faces staring down at her. Her scalp hurt, but she couldn’t think why. Babbling voices assailed her. In the periphery of her vision a large, blond woman swathed in purple came clear.
“Oh my God,” she was saying, “he saved you! I never saw such … oh my God, thank God you had long hair! A second more … ”
The story came out as Rhonda lay there literally catching her breath. One of the skinny young men closest to her had seen her go under, but didn’t see her come back up. He reached for her outstretched arm, but battered by the ever-larger waves, he missed, once, twice, three times. Finally, he saw the bright red hair receding beneath him and snatched at it, grabbing enough to pull against the strong undertow.
The crowd had thinned before Rhonda felt strong enough to sit up and graciously accept a sip of bottled water from the purple-clad woman.
“Honey, seriously,” she was saying, “be grateful. That boy saved your life. Never in all my years ...”
Rhonda wasn’t sure if she was grateful or not. The calm she’d felt just before her last breath … but, no, thinking that way lay the end. She wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the young man who’d rescued her. In tattered cut-offs, he stood hugging himself looking proud and scared at the same time.
With the woman’s help, she got to her feet and made her way toward him.
“Hola,” she said, wishing she had more words. “Muchas gracias,” she added, nodding toward the sea.
“De nada,” he said in a surprisingly deep voice. Rhonda saw then, his pencil-thin mustache, the slight wrinkling in the corners of his eyes. He was probably her age, though maybe slightly younger.
“It was my pleasure,” he added, perhaps realizing that ‘de nada’ translated to ‘it’s nothing.’ It was definitely something.
Rhonda, happy to hear that he had some English, thanked him again, this time in her native tongue.
“Thank you so very much for saving me,” she said.
Embarrassed, the young man looked down at his feet.
Rhonda suddenly felt cold and naked. She looked around for her robe. Ever helpful, the woman in purple held it out to her.
“I saw some kids eying it up,” she said, helping Rhonda put it on. “Can’t trust anyone these days,” she sniffed.
Rhonda thanked the woman, then turned back to her savior, who had begun walking away. She held out her hand.
“Me llamo ‘Rhonda’,” she said, reaching back to her high school Spanish class days. “Cómo se llama?”
“Victor Camacho Hernandez.” He pronounced his first name ‘Beektor.’
“Me gusta,” Rhonda said, surprising herself.
“El gusto es mio,” he replied, shaking her hand.
Amazing! Rhonda thought, it’s just like one of those pretend conversations we had in class. But now what? She needn’t have worried.
“Are you thirsty?” Victor asked in perfectly understandable English. He nodded to a makeshift stand where several kids sold cold drinks from a cooler. Vendors, selling everything from inflatable rafts to full meals dotted the beach. Rhonda realized that she was incredibly thirsty, and hungry, too.
At the drink stand – Rhonda insisted on paying, though Victor had to show her the proper amount – he introduced the youngsters as his cousins. The food stand, where Rhonda bought one of the best carnitas she had ever tasted, was manned by still more cousins.
“And that,” she teased, nodding toward a young woman who sat at a series of low tables, “I suppose is another cousin?”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the shady area where his sister sat hunched over a task. As they got closer, Rhonda could see that she was painting something onto what appeared to be a very small rock. It was a rock, she saw, and the young woman was using a pin dipped in ink to make an amazingly detailed likeness of someone.
“Jesus,” Rhonda whispered, awed at the patience and precision.
Rhonda realized that the tables held hundreds of smooth, oval and round rocks varying in size from an inch to six inches and on each one was a beautifully wrought portrait. Most were of Jesus, but Rhonda also saw likenesses of rock and movie stars, cartoon characters and, incongruously, Richard Nixon.
“Juanita,” Victor said in a low, loving voice. The young woman looked up for the first time and smiled a wide, crooked smile at her brother. Then her eyes slid back to the work in front of her.
Victor shrugged. “Juanita,” he began, “she is ...”
Rhonda put her hand on his shoulder; she understood. She had seen how the girl’s smile had never reached her widely spaced, vacant eyes. They stood watching as Juanita finished one portrait, set it down on the table and reached inside a bag at her feet for another rock, then repeated the process. She did so without acknowledging their presence.
“Amazing,” Rhonda said. Each rock held a miniature masterpiece.
“She can paint anyone,” Victor said proudly. “You, maybe?”
“Oh, no, not me!” Rhonda cried, aware that her wet, tangled hair hung limply from her head. “But can she work from a photo?” She fingered the picture of Kyle in her pocket.
“Si!” Victor laughed and pointed at the likenesses of Nixon. “Juanita, she never met Señor Presidente.”
Rhonda took out the picture of her husband and set it down on the table in front of the girl. After a beat, Juanita set down the rock she was working on and picked up the picture and scrutinized it.
Your heart, she’d said. Not your love – amor – but your heart.
“Si,” Rhonda replied.
Juanita handed back the picture and reached into her bag of rocks. The one she chose was barely two inches long and half as wide. It was smooth, flat and cast with just a tinge of pink. She bent to her work while Rhonda watched in awe as her husband’s likeness came to life on the cool, flat stone. She wished she knew the Spanish word for ‘magic.’
“Magia,” Victor breathed next to her, seemingly every bit as enthralled, though he’d seen his sister work countless times before.
There was Kyle’s high forehead; his prematurely thinning hair. His aquiline nose; the dimple in his right cheek. The preposterously wide grin. And his eyes, unguarded, searching …
“Que está enamorado,” Juanita said more to the stone than to Victor and Rhonda. The picture was done in minutes and Juanita reached for a spray bottle of fixative and gave the stone two short blasts. The resulting shininess made the image seem even more realistic.
Rhonda stared down at it, afraid to touch it. Victor had no such compunctions, though. He picked it up and placed it in her hand.
“Está muerto? He is dead?” he asked, seeing something in her face.
“Está muerto,” she replied, willing herself not to start bawling. “Cuánto es?” she asked instead. “How much is it?”
“Nada,” he replied. “Is a gift.”
Now she really was going to cry. She gave him a hard, quick hug before she gave into it, and ran off toward the hotel.
Rhonda let the hot water of a shower soothe her aching muscles. She put her hands flat against the Spanish tiles on either side of the shower head and let her head fall forward, giving the hard spray time to work some magic on her wrenched neck. She was puzzled, though, when she saw that the water swirling down the drain looked pink. Then she saw the long, red line running down her leg.
Her heart sank, though she didn’t think it could sink any further. After three months of hoping and praying that Kyle’s seed had taken hold, Rhonda had gotten her period … in a foreign country no less.
“Enough!” she cried, her voice echoing off the tiles. She fell to her knees and lay curled under the spray long after the water ran cold.
With a burrito made of a washcloth stuffed with toilet paper wedged between her legs, Rhonda went in search of a store. She was beyond caring that she looked a fright, wearing her long, loose skirt over which she’d worn her beach robe belted with a scarf. The more bulk, the better. She jammed a wad of Mexican money into her pocket and approached the hotel concierge. He didn’t bat an eye at her colorful get-up and showed her a map of the boulevard; she could find a small mercado – market – just a few blocks away.
Rhonda walked quickly, though gingerly; she just wanted to get in the store, secure a box of tampons, and get out again. It was not to be.
The market, though small, was busy and had an air of fiesta about it. The customers, most carrying large, woven shopping bags over their arms, bustled in and out of the door. Rhonda had been hoping for something a little more low-key; she had never been comfortable buying “women’s products.” Kyle, though, had no such qualms and was only too glad to buy them for her. It was something she’d just have to get used to. She grabbed a box of tampons from the shelf and went to wait in line at the check-out. She must have sighed a little too loudly when she noticed that the woman in front of her had a heaping cart and two squalling children. The woman smiled at her and gestured for Rhonda to go ahead of her in the line, which she did, gratefully.
“Gracias,” she said, shyly as she squeezed past the cart.
“De nada,” the woman replied, then turned to grab something from one of her kid’s hands.
Keeping her head down, Rhonda stepped up to the cashier and pulled the wad of bills out of her pocket, heaving a sigh of relief. She clutched the brown bag to her chest and turned to go. But before she could, a bright light was shining in her eyes and music began to play. The cashier grinned broadly at her and clapped her hands. In fact, everyone around Rhonda was clapping their hands. All activity at the other check-outs came to a stand-still and an official-looking employee came bustling up, microphone in hand. Rhonda couldn’t understand a word he was saying. What had she done?
She stood there, frozen, as someone came up behind her and placed something on her head, then draped a royal purple fake fur stole across her shoulders. Someone thrust flowers into her hands. Cameras flashed.
Rhonda wanted to sink into the floor. She kept saying the Spanish phrase she knew best, “No comprendo! No comprendo!”
Seeing Rhonda’s confusion, the cashier leaned over and told her – in English – that Rhonda was the store’s 10,000th customer and she’d won all kinds of fabulous prizes. The girl was gushing; as the cashier who had checked her out, she got to share in some of the bounty.
“No, no, no,” Rhonda said. “There’s a mistake here.” She looked wildly around at the grinning faces, searching for the woman who’s given up her place in line. The manager, still talking through the microphone, gestured toward several carts that were being pushed up to the counter. They were chock full of food and wrapped gifts.
Finally, Rhonda saw the woman she was looking for standing off to the side, a frown on her face.
“Please,” Rhonda said to the cashier, pulling her toward the woman, “this is the real winner. She let me have her place in line. Please explain it to your manager.” The girl looked confused, then seemed to understand. Rhonda whipped the purple stole off her shoulders and thrust it into the other woman’s hands and ran as fast as she could out of the store.
After running a block, Rhonda slowed down, though she half-expected to see the people from the store running after her. Panting, she stopped next to a building to catch her breath. Hysteria bubbled to the surface; she started to laugh. How absurd her life had become! How surreal! People along the sidewalk were giving her wide berth, which made her laugh all the more. She didn’t need a translator to know that the store she leaned against was a liquor store … tienda de licor, it said. She rubbed her face as if to wipe off her smile and went inside. The clerk gave her an odd look, but had no problem understanding her when she pointed to a pint of tequila. She tucked it into the bag she already had and hurried back to the hotel. She could feel blood seeping down her leg.
Sore and out of breath when she barreled into the hotel, Rhonda slowed and tried to look as normal as possible. The night clerk looked up expectantly, saw it was her, and looked down again, then back up, a wide smile on his face.
“Reina de Acapulco?” he said, raising an eyebrow and looking at her head.
“You are the Queen of Acapulco, yes?” he said, pointing to her head.
Rhonda reached up and felt the top of her head, then yanked off the crown that had been put there at the store. She’d forgotten all about it. No wonder people looked at her funny! She jammed the cardboard and glitter contrivance off her head and stuffed it into a pocket, then fled to the elevator. Tequila. All she wanted at this point was tequila.
Not a drinker by any stretch of the imagination, Rhonda poured two fingers of tequila into a bathroom glass and slammed it down. As the liquor made its hot way through her system she remembered, too late, salt and limes and some sort of ritual that made the stuff more palatable. She gave a mighty shiver and poured another glass.
She stood and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She looked ancient. Sad. The tip of her nose had turned red, as it did whenever she drank. She made her way back into the room and sat heavily on the bed, then pulled her cell phone from the depths of her purse. She hadn’t turned it on since she boarded the plane. Going it alone seemed like a good idea at first, but now she needed Kate.
They had been best friends since fifth grade when they figured out that fighting over Jimmy Baron was a no-win for either of them; he was a total jerk. Together, they thought, they were invincible. Kate was cool and practical; Rhonda more likely to jump to conclusions and fly off the handle. Rhonda’s intuition, though, helped them get through some tough spots whereas Kate would think things to death and never move off center. Rhonda needed some of Kate’s coolness.
As she thought, once she’d turned on the phone, it kept buzzing with messages. Surprisingly, though, there were only two calls and two texts from Kate. There were more from Rhonda’s boss than her best friend. She hoped Kate wasn’t sick.
Not bothering to listen to or read her messages, Rhonda pressed ‘2’ to speed dial Kate; ‘1’ had been reserved for Kyle.
“Yes, it’s me, Kate.” Rhonda was trying hard to hold on.
“Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“Kate, you haven’t heard from me in five days!” Rhonda sat up straighter, incredulous; she and Kate usually talked every single day.
“Has it been that long? I’ve been sort of distracted lately.”
Rhonda didn’t know what to say. It was like the time she ran away for an entire day when she was nine. When she got home her mother hadn’t even known she was gone. When Rhonda told her she’d wandered deep into downtown Milwaukee, all her mother said was, “Did you have a good time?”
“Kate, Katie,” Rhonda couldn’t hold it together any longer. She started blubbering. “I’m in Mexico! I almost drowned! I got my period! I’m the freaking Queen of Acapulco! Kate, I need you!”
Rhonda rushed on, suddenly desperate to talk. When she got to the part about Juanita and Kyle’s tiny portrait, she drew the stone out of her pocket, staring down at it while she talked.
“Oh, Kate, it looks just like him!” Rhonda fumbled another tissue from the nearly-empty box. On the other end of the line, Kate was silent.
“Kate, are you there?” Rhonda looked down at the phone. Did it drop the call? She held the phone up to her ear again.“Kate?” She could just barely hear … something … she wasn’t sure what. Then it hit her.
“Kate? Are you crying?”
“Oh, Rhonda!” Now Kate was the one wailing.
“What is it, Kate? What’s going on?”
“I … I’m pregnant, Rhonda,” Kate said through sobs.
That was the last thing Rhonda expected to hear from her independent, unmarried friend. And the most sobering. Kate hadn’t had a steady boyfriend for over a year. It had to be from a one-night stand. Of course she was upset.
“Kate, honey, is it, um, too late to do anything about it?”
Renewed wails came over the line.
“I mean, you know, if you want to do something about it ...” Rhonda fumbled for the right thing to say. The crying stopped, but Kate continued to sniffle.
“No,” she said. “I want this baby, badly.”
Rhonda could barely hear her. How could she suddenly want a kid? Rhonda felt a strange and uncomfortable jealousy.
“Who’s the father, Kate?” she asked.
“He’s out of the picture,” was the quick reply.
Rhonda looked down at the stone in her hand, at the picture of Kyle. Juanita’s words echoed in her muddled head: “Que está enamorado.” He is in love. He is in love. He was looking right into the camera. No, he was looking beyond the camera. At the photographer.
“Kate!” Rhonda yelled into the phone, “Kate, who is the fucking father! Kate? Kate?” Her voice rose, but silence was her answer.
“Fuck!” Rhonda stood up and threw the phone across the room where it landed, unsatisfactorily, on the window love seat.
“Fuck!” she said again, pacing. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Rhonda stormed into the bathroom and grabbed the bottle of tequila. “Screw it,” she said, looking at the glass. She upended the bottle into her mouth while ignoring her ringing cell phone.
The tiny hotel room was too small to hold all of Rhonda’s pain and anger. And there wasn’t enough tequila in the world to kill them. She found herself staggering barefoot over the cool sands of the deserted beach, the nearly-empty bottle dangling from two fingers. The waning moon cast eerie shadows through the palms and lit the calm sea.
Rhonda wandered aimlessly, kicking at the sand. She fell once, twice, then stayed on her knees as she finished off the bottle of tequila. With difficulty she got to her feet, swaying, then threw the empty bottle toward the sea.
“Kyle!” she yelled, bending at the waist, her stomach twisted in knots. “Kyle, you bastard! You deserved to die!” She said it, but felt immediately guilty.
Rhonda stumbled on, coming to the table where Juanita painted stones. Leaning heavily against it, she was shocked to see dozens, maybe hundreds of Kyle’s likenesses on stones of every size. Like an automaton, the young woman had continued recreating the subject. They made Rhonda furious.
She started scooping up the rocks and throwing them, then just started stuffing them into her huge pockets. “Bastard,” she kept repeating over and over again. “Liar! Cheat!” Once the table was cleared of his face, Rhonda felt guilty for stealing from Juanita. She fumbled around in her pocket until she found the wad of cash and stuck it under a large stone with Jesus’ portrait on it, then staggered off toward the water, her robe weighted down by the stones.
With the water lapping over her feet, Rhonda pulled stone after stone from her pockets and whipped them into the ocean, screaming every curse word she knew with each throw. A little way out on the water, but farther than she could throw, she saw the lights of two boats approaching each other. When they came together, they stopped and bobbed next to each other. Smugglers? Rhonda wondered.
“No, they’re lovers,” she said aloud, “sneaking out to see each other. Bastards!” she yelled, throwing another rock. “Fucking!” She threw another rock. “Bastards!” She threw another. “Go home!” Frantic, obsessed with making them go, she looked around and saw the water toy concession where rafts, kick boards and innertubes lay tethered to a palm tree. She scrambled over the sand, then tripped, falling onto a raft. She fumbled with the knotted rope with no luck, then worked at one that held an innertube.
“Ha!” she cried, successful. She looked to see if the boats were still there. They were. She dragged the tube to the water. When she was knee-deep, she plopped down backwards on it and began to paddle her arms. She was going to try to save a marriage and paddled frantically out toward the boats.
Screaming, crying and splashing, Rhonda got halfway to her destination when she heard motors start up. “Go!” she yelled, slapping at the water. “Go!” With difficulty she reached into a pocket and pulled out another stone and threw it after them. The next time she reached inside, though, she felt the crown, the one Kyle had made for her. She pulled it out and started sobbing anew. It was soaked and tattered, but she put it on her head.
“Queen of your soul,” she spat. She pulled out the other crown, the one from the mercado. That, too, she put on her head. “Who wants to be the queen of your dark, dead soul? I’m the fucking Queen of Acapulco!” She threw back her head then, making a sound that was more howl than cry, more animal than human. Then she was quiet.
The little innertube rocked in the water for a long, long time. Finally, with shaking hands, Rhonda pulled the crowns from her head and one by one, threw them into the water. Then she slipped through the hole in the tube after them.
Queen of the Sea.