HE WAS THE SEVENTH of seven sons. His mother, who was Catholic, joked about it, but his father, whose faith was rooted in Chinese tradition, said it made him a witch.
He was like his father, with round stubby hands and eyes so dark it seemed they had no pupils. His ochre skin was always shiny. As a young boy he had developed scrupulous habits of cleanliness, but the shimmer on his skin could not be washed away. None of his brothers looked as Chinese as he. In them, the French had emerged robust and handsome. Each looked like the others and all looked like their mother, but Claude, who might have been another woman’s child, had been their mother’s favorite.
She told him that both bearing him—he would not be still—and birthing him had been painful. “I knew you would wander,” she said. “You were so anxious to get out.” When he was born he was like yellow taffy, sticky and squirming. From that day on she neglected the others. They grew up to be strong, kind men who cherished her and cared for her in her old age; he grew up aloof. He had seen her three times in twenty years, and he seldom answered her letters. He could not think what would interest her.
When he was a toddler, she began saying it was time to return to France. Her father had left her an inheritance, enough to buy a small country house where they could drink fresh milk and eat calves’ liver. But first she wanted to teach the boys better manners and better French. Then, when he was fifteen and all his brothers were gone, their village was raided by guerillas from the north. His father ran out to put a tarp over the garden and bullets shattered his head.
His mother took Claude to Saigon where they had to wait months for transportation to Paris. He was sick with anticipation. When he lapsed into dialect, his mother cried, “You must speak French now. No one will understand you.”
Claude rose from his chair behind his desk to greet a guest, a bony old American woman with yellow teeth. She sat down and began chattering cheerfully. At least she had no complaints. Her husband joined her and Claude read them an item he had clipped from the Laredo Herald. A constable had been caught with a woman he had taken from her jail cell to his office; they had fallen asleep on the floor and been discovered in the morning. It came out that he did this many nights, and that none of the women had complained.
The American played along. “How nice a break it must have been for the women! Why should they punish a man for such behavior? He probably wasn’t happy at home.” His wife snorted and poked him, then giggled.
Claude said, “When I am married, I’d like to have three wives.”
The man chuckled. “Ambitious.”
“No, just practical. One woman is not enough.”
“It better be!” the woman said.
“I’d like to have a fat ugly woman with one eye to cook for me. She would be so happy that I would come home at night to pinch her bosom and say, ‘How’s the soup?’
“Then I’d have another wife, very beautiful and sophisticated, for my friends. Don’t friends always long for another’s beautiful wife? They would give her gifts and keep her busy, and she would come home to show me what she learned.
“But third and last, I should have a young wife, white like talcum, with the body of a young boy, to sit with as I drink my morning coffee. And when I look into her eyes, I will see my own reflection.”
The couple thought the story was amusing. Of course he had meant to amuse them, but it was disappointing that no one ever challenged his trite speeches and stories. He thought them out ahead of time, like card tricks.
He spoke eight languages, though French and Spanish were the only ones that truly came from his tongue and not his head. He wished Cia spoke French. He had heard her speaking Spanish with the boys in the bar, but when he mentioned it to her, she said it was only chitchat, all she knew.
He told her about the three wives and she laughed in a way that was both unoffended and unamused, and he liked her response. He liked that when he looked at her she met his gaze squarely. At first he had assumed she was young and shallow and maybe trying out poses of pained sophistication: a half-smart girl. Then he thought she was one of those women who never learned, who kept digging themselves into the same hole over and over again. He couldn’t get any information from her. He asked her, for example, why she was hanging out in the middle of Huasteca nowhere with a bunch of old Midwesterners and a couple of oversized iguanas, and she said she didn’t have anything else to do. She said she had met the hotel’s owner, a playboy from Mexico City, through a girlfriend, and he had offered her “time in the campo,” and she’d grabbed it. Simple as that.
He had been offended when word came from the city that she was coming, some sort of cast-off from a tired affair. The first thing he noticed was that she was wearing red ballet flats. He had seen those shoes just a week earlier, when he was in the city; they had been tossed carelessly near the owner’s bed. She was a pleasant-looking girl, unspectacular and polite, but as soon as he saw her shoes he resented her appearance at the hotel. He wanted to tell her he wouldn’t be her babysitter. He hadn’t been hired to do charity. American girls were giddy and attainable and never knew when to go away. But the owner had the money and the owner called the shots, so Claude invented things for Cia to do, and to his surprise, she did them well. As the season picked up, she took the English-language clerical duties out of his hands entirely, answering letters, sending brochures, making reservations. On the birthdays of guests, she organized piñata parties and special dinners. She arranged for hairdressers to come out from town once a week for the ladies. She led groups of guests to the nearby caves and on Sundays to the Indian market forty miles away in a town where they were amazed to discover a sixteenth-century synagogue. She even noticed the ugly splotches on the murals in the lobby and went into town and found what she needed to patch and paint them. She climbed into precarious positions on a scaffold, working in full view of delighted guests who hadn’t noticed the old man in the corner of the painting leering up at the pretty peasant girls dancing along through the neon jungle.
She had some demands. She wanted a room at the end of the hall, and she wanted never to be summoned by phone, and he bristled, but the truth was she was useful and he hardly ever had to tell her what to do. He paid her in dollars and she had him keep the money in the safe. Whatever she spent seemed to come from tips. Several times she went to Acapulco when she got a ride with guests, and she came back on second-class buses.
Once he took her to his little house in Pueblo, where he had no responsibilities. She made childish watercolors and did a lot of messy cooking. She wore a kimono he had there and she was always barefoot. He had a scrapbook of photographs of a Polynesian island development he had directed for the French government. She bought a length of brilliantly colored material and wrapped it around her, knotting it low on her hips, the way she had seen it done in some of the photos. He took her to see a few sights, but mostly he read or hiked and left her to her puttering. Things were easy between them, very friendly. They were not yet lovers. It was the one time he would have said she was happy.
Soon after that he took her to a funeral. The man who had died was the mayor of a small village nearby and she had been earnest about everything, wanting to dress appropriately, wanting to know what to say. After the funeral, there had been tamales and tequila and beer, and she had become a little drunk. When they reached the hotel, she grasped his hands and she said, “Isn’t it amazing, when you think of where we come from, that we’re here? Now?”
They were in the dark lobby. He patted her hand.
The next day he didn’t see her, but he thought about her, about how young she was, how she didn’t have an education, she didn’t have goals; as if she had applied for something he wouldn’t give her. He went to Tampico to buy tablecloths and a new blender for the bar. That night, very late, he went to the sulfur pool to swim before bed. There were no stars. He dropped into the hot, heavy water that stank of minerals, and his body relaxed and in a moment perspiration dotted his forehead and turned cold in the air.
He was not a man to be startled, but he wasn’t expecting her to be there in the water, so when he came up to her holding onto the edge, he caught his breath in surprise. She was wearing tiny gold earrings he had never seen before.
He told her, “In my country, where I was born, when girls are young, their mothers put a hot needle through their ears and they insert little hoops like you wear.”
“I never know what I should say to you,” she said. “In my country, where I was born, men say what they mean, if they say anything at all.”
“I was only telling you something I remember.”
“I came out here to wait for you.”
He touched her cheek. “Your earrings—”
He couldn’t believe he felt so much, looking at them. He said, “I wish I had given them to you.”
She put her mouth against his, then fell away, splashing him. She got out of the water and walked away. He was pleased; it was the perfect thing for her to do. He wanted her, but even more, he wanted to wrestle with his desire.
She came to him later that night, naked except for a towel wrapped loosely around her. She called his name from the steps, throwing stones with her sandals in her rush. She ruined everything. He lived chastely in his aerie. He tried to tell her. “How like a child you are,” he said to her, meeting her in the doorway. She shook her head and pushed her way in. He tried to be tender, but she moved expertly. He tried to talk, but she put her hand across his mouth.
After that, he became obsessed with her faults. Her ragged nails. (When he brought her a manicure set, she said she didn’t think her hands should be made an indignity.) Her hair. (She pulled it back carelessly.) Her soiled or wrinkled clothes. He began checking her work, hovering, making pedantic suggestions. Otherwise, they never seemed to talk.
One afternoon he came upon her in the garden reading from the library’s Bible. She invited him to sit and she read from Peter. Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourself likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.
She asked him, “If suffering is the way to redemption, the way to God, what happens if our lives are petty? If our only suffering is death? Does it come too late?”
He shook his head. So this was how she spent her solitude.
He said, “Only a fool’s God would construct such a conundrum.”
He wanted to say: Live a good life! He would gladly talk to her about history, geography, literature—he was just reading the poet Cavafy—but of course she didn’t know anything. He had never offered her a book to read. There was only her body and these childlike musings. The things he had taken and cast back.
She asked him, “Do you think we can always decide our moral choices, or are some of them just bigger than we are?”
“Now that’s something else altogether. Choice, Cia, think about the word.”
Later he read in his French Bible, and he worried for her, but he decided she was showing off, and he felt cold toward her.
The closest they came to an argument was when he looked for her near dinnertime another day, and one of the boys said she was in the bar. This wasn’t long after their strange dialogue.
As he approached the octagonal room, built away from the main corridor of the hotel, he heard music and loud laughter and cheering. A group of young men from the town had come to drink. Two were playing guitars and all were clapping and singing. Cia was dancing. He had never seen her dance. She was wearing white shorts and a sleeveless knit shirt. When she raised her arms, the shirt pulled up and showed a strip of skin.
Her shoulders undulated with the rhythm of the guitars. When she threw her arms up he saw her abdomen ripple. He knew the boys were watching her unbound breasts moving under the shirt. He knew how hungry these boys were and what they thought of gringas. She saw him and jumped toward him and danced around him, almost touching. He stalked out of the bar. When he saw her later going to her room, he stopped her and asked her if she expected to receive a bonus for her performance.
“No,” she said. “I’ve already been paid.”
Much later he would think that there had been a reason she had provoked him, that her questions were hanging between them and her dancing had something to do with his failure to take her seriously. Then he thought he was making too much of her. He decided to write his employer about her, to ask if he knew she was still at the hotel. He started a ledger for her, billing her room, meals, drinks each day, so that the employer would see what his friend was costing.
After the encounter in the bar she avoided him. She stayed in her room a lot. He would realize that whole days had gone by and he hadn’t seen her. Then her father died and she went home to the funeral. Fine, he thought. She’s gone. But she returned.
He saw the woman with the yellow teeth again, heading into the bar with one of the male guests, not her husband. She called him over. “You know Dick? His wife and my husband have given up for the evening. Our spouses have no spices, so we’re making the best of it.” She was holding Dick’s arm fast and Dick had no expression at all. She seemed to be daring Claude to say something, but all he said was, “Have a good evening.”
He knew that all the guests would have long ago eaten, except for Cia, and he went to find her. It was about ten o’clock. The dim lights failed to catch any sparkle on the glasses or silver. The area was depressing. He had thought to cheer the place up by knocking out the outside wall and putting in a round stomach of glass facing the gardens. During the day it was pleasant, and guests delighted in the rich garden colors, but at night, after the sun had banked behind the mountain, the tables near the curved window were empty, and guests, consciously or not, avoided facing it. It was like entering the sea in a tube; one felt surrounded by darkness, creatures, sounds, threats.
Cia, though, was seated with her back to the door, spooning soup rapidly. The only other person in the room was the waiter with a white cloth over his arm, staring off blankly. Claude walked past him to Cia’s table and realized, as he approached her, that she didn’t know he was there. She was rolling a piece of bread between her thumb and forefinger, making a hard soiled ball of starch. She was wearing a blouse of rough cotton.
He wanted to say something—that her indifference was hurtful, to her more than to him, that it was time for her to grow up, that she should be thinking about practical matters, and that she had to go. That he was a lonely, aging, haughty man, and that it was amazing that they were here. Now.
She turned. “How many times have I told you not to sneak up on me in those damned moccasins?”
“I’m wearing sandals.”
“No matter. You’re a creature of the jungle, Claude.”
He sat down. She tipped her bowl and drank the last of the soup. Her hair fell across her nose and she pushed it back.
“It’s getting long,” he said.
“Almost. I’d like to be able to put it up, you know, like a French roll, women in forties movies. When I can get it all tucked in, I think I’ll leave.”
Whatever he would say would be wrong. She said, “But it grows really slow.”
He said, “Before you came, I never saw a young girl in this hotel. The women who come here in the winter are so old that if their daughters come to visit, they are old, too.”
“I’ll be twenty-seven in a month.”
“Sometimes I’ve thought you were very young. A teenager.”
“That’s not flattering.”
“What were you doing at eighteen?”
“I’d just got out of high school. My mother had kicked me out of the house. I had a shitty job.” She took a deep, tired breath. “And I was looking for someone to be in love with.”
“Did you find him?”
“No. When you’re like that—wide open, I mean—somebody finds you. You might as well be wearing a sandwich board. But it got me past being stupid.”
“It emancipated you.”
“I like that! I never thought of it that way. Thanks, Claude.”
“What will you do next?”
“I keep thinking about having an apartment. I’ve been drawing pictures of it. Just a little place, but with my own lock. So I guess I’ll have to think where I want to live, and go there, won’t I?”
He stood up. “Be sure you say goodbye.”
She grabbed his hand. “Are you being mean?”
“Let’s swim, yes?”
He went to change into his suit.
She wasn’t in the water when he got to the pool. There was a cold moon in the sky. She was sitting, slightly hunched, on a slatted bench a few feet from the side of the pool. She hadn’t changed her clothes. He sat down beside her. After a few moments she said that she would rather go up to his cottage above the gardens.
She followed him to the fenced area where he kept several deer. They had to enter the enclosure on one side, pass among and through the animals, and exit on the other side. The deer bumped against her and she recoiled, grabbing his arm. He shoved and scolded them and they backed away. He remembered that she had been alone that first night she came to him, and he wondered how it had been for her, passing among the deer, who would have crowded around her, gate to gate.
They went up stone steps to his cottage.
He put on a shirt and trousers and poured drinks for them. She sipped brandy in silence until he sat down just across from her, their knees almost touching. She said, “I didn’t get to go to my father’s funeral. They had already buried him when I got there.”
“I’m sorry you went so far.” It was not easy, coming and going from the region of the hotel.
“They had to see that I would show up. Claude, have you known anybody else like me?”
“Of course not.”
“Would you want to?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you met someone, and you thought, ‘She reminds me so much of Cia,’ would you just run the other way, or would you treat her the same way you’ve treated me?”
“I don’t know how I’ve treated you. That’s a strange word.”
“People treat each other in certain ways every day. In patterns. With respect. With affection. Maybe with longing. Or with contempt. My mother used to call me ‘girl.’ She would say, ‘Have you put away the laundry, girl?’ Or ‘Don’t even think it, girl.’ People treat each other with no sense of a future or with anticipation. Don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean.”
“All right.” He was shamed. “All right.”
She put her drink down on the floor and took his and put it down too. She put her arms loosely around his neck. The brandy of her breath mingled with his. Their teeth clicked. She said, “I love you.”
A few days later she asked if he would help her buy a tombstone for her father’s grave. Her mother had bought a small marker, saying, “Who’ll ever see it?” Cia wanted something better. She was the only one who cared, but that was enough, wasn’t it? He said he would be glad to help. They took her money out of the safe and drove into Tampico and made arrangements for a stone to be engraved and shipped. He left his contact information, in case there were any further questions. Before they left the city, she asked him to take her to a pharmacy, saying she had been having trouble sleeping, and she had had a lot of headaches lately.
She didn’t say goodbye.
A few months later, the owner sent Claude a clipping from one of the Mexico City papers, no more than an inch of column space. A young American woman, Cynthia Matthews, had been strangled in a cheap Acapulco hotel. The murder was under investigation. Claude called his employer to ask if he was doing anything himself. Certainly he had the money for his own investigator, and the influence to push the authorities. The owner said, “I don’t want anyone to associate me with this, you understand me? I gave her money to go home and that’s the end of it as far as I’m concerned, the poor dumb girl. I should have put her on the plane myself.”
Claude told himself to forget about Cia, but he kept picking up the clipping instead of throwing it away. Finally one evening he sat down in his office and tried to see her one more time. Immediately he remembered her dancing in her skimpy clothes, and a whole trail of angry thinking lay out in front of him and he shook his head and refused to follow it. He thought he ought to say a prayer for her, but he didn’t believe. He didn’t have the words. He threw the clipping away. A little later, walking to his cottage in the dark, he stopped in the enclosure to pet his deer. They came around him like big dogs, nuzzling him with their wet noses. As he stood among the deer, he remembered how offhandedly Cia had mentioned her mother, and a prayer came to mind. “Mother Mary,” he said.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.