An excerpt from a novel in progress.
Lucy opened the van window all the way, draping her arm along the frame. The air felt wonderful, as if it had twice as much oxygen as the stuff passing for air back home.
Her plane had touched down at an airfield consisting of a single runway. Still, it was a big improvement from decades before, when she’d come with her mother and sister. There’d been no airport then of any kind, no paved roads, and very few tourists.
Now, the sleek hotel vans picking up her fellow passengers signaled how things had changed. They all went off in the direction opposite of where Lucy needed to go. Playa Blanca had probably been saved from the tourist hordes by its rocky coast, with the occasional narrow beach of dirt-colored sand, and the fact that surfing was only good a few days a year, when a rare south wind blew.
Just as the last passenger was spirited away, a van from a shuttle service pulled up. The automatic window purred down; the driver lowered his sunglasses to look give Lucy a leisurely once-over. She remembered enough of the culture to not take his scan too personally.
He said his intended passenger had missed his flight and did she want to hire him instead?
When she told him where she was going his mouth twisted. “My boss doesn’t want his vans on that road,” he said, but offered to take her to the crossroads, where she could catch a bus to Playa Blanca. She wasn’t sure how far that was, how much the ride would cost, or how often the bus came, but it seemed to be her only option.
The hills and trees didn’t look immediately familiar, but the smell and the way the sky was complicated with clouds reminded Lucy of how she’d felt those summers she and her mother and sister had visited. She’d made friends fast. They’d scramble up onto horses grazing in open fields, running them down to the beach to meet the fisherman coming in with their catch.
Back then, Lucy had felt it almost immediately: that there was a better chance of being herself here, but a self spread out to let everything in: an ocean close to body temperature, waves that either slammed down like detonated buildings or sent lazy, foamed-edged tongues shushing up the onto the sand. When she tried to describe the feeling to her mom, Sara laughed. “That’s how it feels to be on vacation,” she said. “Then you go back to real life.”
But those visits had been more than vacations, even for Sara. Or especially for Sara, Lucy now knew, after finally seeing the letters from Uncle Gabo, aka Gabriel Mora Soto. The letters Sara had deliberately kept from her, for as long as she. Sara, had lived.
The roads had improved considerably. The ride was almost smooth.
They passed some deer in a nearby field. The driver wanted Lucy to take pictures of them. Apparently he was studying to be a nature guide. She was having trouble convincing him that they also had deer where she came from.
“We have deer,” she repeated, in Spanish this time so there would be no confusion.
“Maybe you think they’re deer,” said the driver, conciliatory. He was taller than the locals she remembered from before, and lighter skinned. There were faint freckles on his forearms.
Lucy gave him a tight smile. And maybe, she thought, I only thought that Uncle Gabo was a three-summer fling. Gabo hadn’t been their real uncle, of course. Sara, a pot growing beekeeper who said who needs men but then had a long string of them, made her girls call all the men she went out with “uncle.” Both Faith and Lucy had been crazy about Uncle Gabo. They cried when Sara said she was done with him. That was before they learned not to get caught up in their mother’s enthusiasms.
“I know a joke,” the driver announced.
There was something in his tone that made Lucy brace herself. He didn’t seem dangerous, just mildly flirtatious, but with a shadow of hostility, not an uncommon combo in her experience.
“In English,” he added, proud. “A father is teaching her son how to be a man—“
“His son,” Lucy corrected. Thousands of miles from her classroom, and she couldn’t shake her teacherly responses.
“The mother—I mean the father—these words are alikes—the father say to the son, “Mi hijo,”—that means “my son”—‘Mi hijo, you can not expect to, um, to sleeps with every woman in the world.”
“But hijo! You have to at least try!”
Lucy laughed in spite of herself.
“You are not—“ the driver looked concerned, “agitated by this joke?”
“I am not agitated,” she assured him.
“I know that norteamericanos can be—“
“I’m not agitated,” she said sharply.
Back when they visited Uncle Gabo, everyone had been so nice, at least until they started drinking and railing about U.S. imperialism. The last summer was the worst. Up north towards the border, an airstrip was being built with American money as a base for the Nicaraguan contras, U.S.-backed forces set on toppling the Sandinistas. One night Uncle Gabo drove them to see how the bulldozers, now silent, were by day tearing up part of a national park. Sara was appalled, and apologetic. But after weeks of apologizing on behalf of her country, she started arguing. How did they know for sure who was funding the airstrip? And if it was the U.S., they must have a good reason. Even at twelve Lucy could tell her mother didn’t believe that, and in fact history would prove her wrong. But some atavistic principle had kicked in, and Sara, far from home, was defending her tribe.
“My teacher say that jokes are hard in English,” said the driver.
Lucy murmured assent.
“Because gringos don’t have a sense of humor.”
The driver clapped his hand over his mouth, but Lucy suspected that he’d just delivered the real punch line.
At the crossroads, the driver swung her suitcase from the back of the van. The bus would be here soon, he said, and if it didn’t come, she could catch a ride with anyone heading towards Playa Blanca. Gravel pressed up through Lucy’s thin-soled shoes. Now that they’d stopped moving, the air felt heavy and still.
She’d wondered whether to keep her errand quiet at first—small towns could be tricky. But she only had ten days, eight if you didn’t count travel time. “Do you know a Señor Gabriel Mora Soto?”
“A driver? Was he supposed to meet you at the airport?”
“No,” said Lucy. Her body thrummed with fatigue and her mouth was dry. “I could pay you to take me the rest of the way,” she offered.
“My boss would kill me if I took the van on that road.”
Lucy sighed. “How much do I owe you?”
The driver’s smile was both servile and calculating. “Whatever you want to pay.”
She gave him twice what she had imagined would be the most he could possibly charge. She didn’t want him to think she was cheap.