Sunset

Neal Gordon

This is a story about four people. Two are present. Two are not.


Two clear plastic bags hang from the rafter at the far end of the cabana. Half filled with liquid, they sway in the salt sea air. Red twine snakes around the rough log rafter, sealing each bag and holding it in place.

Ray motions to the waiter and points, "What are they?"

The waiter, an older man, not like the usual young cabana boys that served his food, looks at Ray for a moment. "¿└Habla español?"

"Un pequito. Barely," Ray says and takes a sip from the cold bottle.

Slowly, the waiter says in broken English, "They are not the friends of the mosquitoes."

"What's inside?"

"Vinegar and water. Cerveza, señor?"

"No. La quenta. The check, just the check," Ray says and reaches for the roll of colorful money he got in exchange for his bland green dollars at the hotel desk. It would be easy enough to sit here and get plastered. The sun on the water and the pink and white tourists around him are comforting: their voices a sing-song of accents from across the ocean. Ray laughs as a small blonde boy finishes a sand castle and then stands, raises his arms Frankenstein-like, and crushes his own work. The action is so simple and clear that he feels a lump rise in his throat. He has to shake his head to clear the moment.

Ray steps into his shoes and, feeling his skin suddenly crinkly, slowly stands. He sees Julia, lying in the crowd around the water's edge, stomach down on the yellow beach towel, her red hair pulled back in a knot. Ray stares at her as the waiter brings the check and lays it on the table. Her shoulders glare with oil, and her black suit looks impossibly dark against her still-white skin. She's going to get torched, he thinks.

Ray looks at the check and peels off a twenty, converting back to dollars in his head. "Three bucks," he says out loud. Two beers, chips and guacamole. No wonder everyone here is poor. They could charge ten at home, easy.

Ray goes and sits down on a plastic beach chair with his hand on the front of his neck. As he has done a thousand times, he touches the small hard lump there without thinking. The small lump has always been there, one of a spare pair of ribs. Contorted to be sure, they are not smooth and even like their well formed siblings. One rib, the one he fingers now, points out above his collar bone, as if trying to grow out of his neck, like a creeping ivy searching for the sunlight. Its twin rises briefly then turns back into him, into the shadows of his interior. He does not know where it ends. The times when he is conscious of his action, he thinks of them like tea leaves, waiting to be read in the bottom of a cup, predicting his past and future.

Julia turns her head to him and the wisps of her hair touch the sand. Ray cannot help but notice how the sun has made her hair's red seem more yellow this past week. "What's going on down there?" she asks, sitting up and pointing past him down the beach. He turns and looks to where a crowd is gathering around a lump in the sand. People run toward the crowd, hurrying.

"Looks like a fight, maybe. All of these college kids," Ray says lifting his head. He wishes once again that he had thought twice about traveling here this time of year, when there seem to be young people and families everywhere.

"Go down and see," she says, shielding her eyes to see.

"Fine," he says, getting up. The sand is hot in Mexico, he thinks as it sticks to his feet like tar. It is formed from tiny pieces of shell, unlike the sand he is used to back in New Jersey.

A hundred yards down, he can see that it is definitely not a brawl: the crowd isn't moving. He quickens his step and between the legs of the gapers he sees a large, dark colored something on the beach.

When he is within ten yards of the crowd, he recognizes the something as the body of a man. A group of young men are doing CPR. The man's body has gone sort of purple-gray, a color Ray recalls too vividly from a year ago when he looked at his stillborn son in the delivery room.

Without taking another step forward, Ray turns and begins to walk back up the beach. The last thing he wants to do is look at a dead body. He shakes his head to stop his mind from thinking of that color.

"What is it?" Julia calls when he gets close enough that she can yell over the surf.

"Dead guy."

"That's terrible," she says, sitting up.

"Big fat gray dead guy."

"Are you sure he's dead?"

"They're doing CPR on him, but no way. He's dead."

He sits down and looks at her. She is beginning to cry, he sees. It is one of the moments where he feels the least like a man, least like he can do anything about what happened. He puts a hand on her back.

"It's so sad," she says. "He's probably here on vacation."

"Goes without saying," he says looking down at his sand covered feet. God, the sand sticks to everything. He looks at the water rolling onto the beach, a green blue color he doesn't naturally associate with the ocean. But, he thinks, he could get used to it. The waves roll up, dark blue, then begin to swell, a lighter blue, then almost emerald green as they break and roll up on the yellow sand. Julia's hitching stops under his hand and he knows the moment has passed for her.

"I am definitely taking that class at the Y when we get back."

"Class?"

"CPR. Can you imagine?"

"Dying on vacation? There are worse places."

"No, for whomever he's with. Can you imagine what a nightmare they're vacation has just become?"

"Hadn't thought about it," he says thinking that the guy looked too young to be married and way too fat to have a girlfriend.

"What if they're alone here? Having to handle all of the details in a foreign language?"

"I'm sure some diplomat will come."

"So sad."

"Let's go inside. The sun is killing me."

"Ray," she says looking at him.

Ray feels his stomach roll over again, like the waves. A moment passes and Ray feels in that moment the conversation between them that is not said about a baby that he wants but she will not have. But this time Julia laughs, and everything is okay again. "Sorry. I didn't mean that," he laughs and bends over to pick up his towel and the bottles of sunscreen and water.

When he opens the door to the hotel room, he is struck by the cool dryness of the room. The air conditioner makes such a difference in this heat, he thinks. "I'm going to rinse off this sand," he says and steps into the bathroom. He hears the sliding door open to the deck and turns on the shower to get the water right.

The shower is cool, and he feels a quick chill and a bit of lightheadedness that quickly passes along with some blue fuzzy places in his vision. A hand on the solid marble wall helps, and in a moment he is fine, lathering. His skin feels tender to his touch, as if he was having an allergic reaction. Turning off the tap, he steps in front of the mirror and sees that he has gotten too much sun.

"I'm burned," he calls, but he hears the ocean through the glass door and can feel the humidity from outside in the few moments since they came into the room. He steps out into the room and says loudly, "Close the door, you're letting the air out."

"God, am I as burned as you?" Julia says turning back into the room, and pulling the door closed.

"That bad? I wore sunblock."

"Sunscreen, more likely. Which bottle did you use?"

"The blue one in my towel."

"That's only SPF 4. You should have worn at least 20. You'll be sore later."

"What should I do? Take some ibuprofen?"

"I don't think it would hurt. Drink some water. Do you still want to go out tonight?"

"It's not that bad, is it?

"No, I guess not, if you don't think so."

"It's just a sunburn."

"If you say so. I'm going to get cleaned off."

He pulls back the bedcover and lies down on the cool white sheets. They feel amazing against his skin: cold. But he can feel that some parts of his body, his upper arms, the backs of his knees, the webbing between his fingers, feel swollen and stiff. When he rolls over to take a sip of water, the sheets stick. The sensation is like he's being peeled out of his skin. "Jesus," he says aloud, laying back. He can feel the heat radiating from his naked body.

Listening to the shower in the next room, Ray thinks about the dead man on the beach. Surely his body was cold by the time they got him onto the sand. Not cold, he corrects himself, just not warm enough.

"Are there any beers left in the refrigerator?" she asks when she comes out of the bath, a white towel wrapped around her.

"I think so. You want one?"

"Please."

He grimaces as he gets up, but when he picks up the beer bottle, its coldness convinces him to have one as well.

"God, you're almost purple," she says when he walks into the bathroom. He is pretty shocked by his reflection in the mirror. The white band of his privates is shocking compared to the red of the rest of him. Beet-red, make that.

"You're burned too."

"Not anything like you, sweetie," she says. "Can you open that? I can't manage it."

He twists off the beer bottle top and hands it back to her. In turning to take it, the towel around her and falls to the floor. There is a silence.

"Want me to put some lotion on your back?" he says in what is his most normal voice.

"Please," she says and hands him the bottle from the counter while pulling her hair forward over her shoulder.

He squeezes the lotion into his hand, puts the bottle down and begins to spread it on her back when she pulls away. "Sorry,"

"It's just cold," she says.

He stops and rubs his hands together and then goes back to spreading it on her bare back. He feels her push back against him and looks into the mirror to see that she has closed her eyes. Her skin is smooth and warm and the lotion turns thin and begins to absorb. When he is finished, his hands feel greasy and he goes to the sink to rinse them. When he returns, she has not moved.

He lies down next to her and she turns her face to him and her eyes open as she smiles. She makes a noise and closes her eyes again, leaning in and kissing him. He touches her and in a few moments she is pulling him toward her, but he can't. He closes his eyes when she looks at him.

He rolls away from her, stands and pulls on a pair of shorts. "I'm going down to the front desk to ask about a good restaurant in the city," he says.

"Are you okay," she asks.

"Yes, perfectly. Just sunburned," he says and pulls on a shirt. The cotton feels like sandpaper.

"Maybe later?"

"Absolutely."

"Buy money," she says and smiles and begins to dry her hair with the towel.

In the lobby, people mill about and Ray goes to the concierge desk by the front door.

"¿Hay un buen restaurante?"

In Ray's mind, the words are converted slowly to English. We have a fine restaurant, sir.

"No... En la ciudad?"

There are many. Try Ricardio's. Understand?

"Entiendo. ¿Usted necesita un coche conseguir allí?"

Certainly, a taxi for you.

"Bueno. Sobre una hora. ¿Puedo cambiar el dinero aquí?"

7.5 to one.

Ray takes two fifties from his wallet and the man hands him a pile of bills in bright colors.

"Gracias."

In the room, she is dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed wearing a blue sundress with a white shirt beneath. Her perfume fills the air. "You look great."

"Any luck with the concierge?"

"I got a name of a restaurant in the town. There are taxis out front. Andiamo al barre?"

"Italian? The bar? Not just yet. We need to talk."

"No, we don't. Let's just go have a drink and not talk."

"I need to understand what is happening, Ray."

"Nothing is happening. We're on vacation."

"You feel far away."

"I'm just thinking about things."

"What kind of things."

"I'm just thinking about me."

"Without me?"

"No, it's not like that."

"Well, what is it like?"

"It's not important. I'm just trying to understand what kind of person I am."

"What kind of person are you?"

"I knew you were going to ask that."

"Well, you spend so much time thinking about yourself. You are so self-involved. It's very hard to be around you when you're like this."

"Look, you know how you're always saying how self-involved I am? Is it better to be self-involved and think about yourself or is it better to sit around and gossip about everyone else and think about their lives?"

"I don't do that."

"I'm not saying you do. I'm just saying that's what I get all day at the office. Who fucked who and who shit on who and what they are going to do to who, ad nauseam."

"They're just talking to talk."

"And I'm just thinking to think. Is that okay?"

"Look, I was just trying to see what was bothering you. Now it seems it's me bothering you."

"You're not bothering me. I'm just a little withdrawn right now. I'll be better in a drink or two."

"Then let's go."

In the elevator stand a young boy and his father. The boy is gorgeous, brown hair and freckles. "Dad, how come my pants won't stay up?" he says, one hand on his green corduroy pants. Ray feels Julia chuckle. How can the kid be wearing corduroy? It must be 85 degrees in the shade. Kids.

"Because you don't have a belt, kiddo."

For a moment, there is only the sound of the elevator clicking past each floor. "I do too have a belt," the boy says and pulls at one of his belt loops to show his father.

"No, that's a belt loop. See this is the belt," the man says pointing to his own.

"Can I have yours?" the boy asks. Ray can't help but laugh out loud. The boy looks at Ray, and then turns face in toward his father, embarrassed. Ray feels the momentum of the elevator slow into that moment when everything feels heavier than it is.

"Too big, kiddo. We'll get you one, okay?"

In an almost whisper as the doors open, the boy says, "No. It's okay."

Ray and Julia walk toward the hotel bar, through the marble tiled lobby, toward the ocean. Ray laughs and lifts two fingers to the bartender, and says "Dos margaritas, por favor." The dark skinned man smiles and dips his head toward his work.

On the porch of the building, the sun feels warm and Ray moves to sit in the shade of the giant umbrella. Without thinking, he takes her hand and looks into her face. A smile spreads across her lips, her eyes closed and he feels her squeeze his hand. The waiter breaks the mood with the drinks.

"On the room?" he asks.

"Sí, gracias," Ray says. The sun dips below the edge of the umbrella and Ray slides his chair back a bit further into the shade.

"Cute boy," Julia says.

"Yes, he was. Very," he says taking a sip of the sugary drink. "How do you feel when you see children?" he asks and leans forward into the sunlight to see her eyes. With one hand he shades his forehead.

"I used to not be able to look at them. Now it's not so bad. How about you?"

"The same, mostly," he says and leans back. The time is not right.

"Can we talk about what happened in the hotel room?"

"Talking about it won't help." Ray watches as a young girl tries to walk down the slippery steps in swim fins.

"Yes, talking always helps."

No. It doesn't. It just makes me more aware of it. Look, if there's one problem in the world that I don't want to think about, it's this one. Thinking about it makes me even more self-conscious, which makes it more likely. Okay. Let's not talk about it.

The little girl holds the handrail, but he can see how unsteady she is.

"Is it the baby?" It's the first time that she's said anything this direct and he is speechless. "Or is there something else?"

"No. There's nothing else," he says. He watches as the girl begins to slip and he jerks to his feet instinctively. From the corner of his vision, a woman on the beach stands just as he does.

"Did you plan on a place with so many kids?" Julia asks, putting a hand on his and directing him back to his chair.

"No."

From the taxi, Ray watches as they pass through vendor-lined streets. Cheap white fluorescent light gives the evening a sterile green glow. The further they drive, the dimmer the light becomes. There are far more shops than shoppers, as the Americans stand out so clearly from the locals. Beggars wait on the corners, cups out. Peddlers hawk goods to each passing customer.

Finally the taxi leaves the brightly lit market area and travels through dark streets until it comes to a brightly lit open air restaurant. The taxi pulls to a stop and the driver reaches back and flips open the door. "Costa," Ray starts, but the driver turns and says, "After, I take you home, señor."

"You're going to wait?"

"Same price one way or both. I eat here."

"Oh," Ray says and crawls out of the back seat.

The restaurant is cement floored, with red-linoleum-topped tables and chrome-legged chairs. Music plays and families laugh and talk. The taxi driver sits at the low counter and seems to know everyone. Ray and Julia sit at an open table near the kitchen. Kids run wild through the place.

"Menus?" an old woman calls from behind the counter.

"Gracias, sí."

"¿Cerveza?"

"Dos," Ray says, looking at Julia, who nods.

The old woman smiles as she waddles over to the table with two bottles of Sól, two glasses, half a lime and two sheets of paper. "Thanks," Julia says. The woman squeezes the lime into the glasses, and pours the frothy beer.

"The menu looks great. How's the molé?"

"You need to eat more than that," the woman says.

"What else is good?"

"Everything is good, but the rellenos are very popular with the sunburned gringos." She laughs and puts a hand on Ray's shoulder. "How is it that she is rojo, and you are the fire?"

"She's smarter than I am."

"Your English is terrific," Julia says.

"I'll tell you a secret. Everyone on the island speaks English. They are just stubborn about it."

"Aren't you?"

"I am the most stubborn of all. I insist that everyone is comfortable here."

"We heard you were the best restaurant in town,"

"You must be staying at the new hotel."

"How did you know?"

"My oldest is at the desk there. He sends everyone to us."

"But you are the best, right?"

"My son is no liar," she says.

"What should I try?" Ray asks.

The woman takes the menus from them, looks at Ray a moment and says, "Sunscreen, gringo. Sunscreen," as she walks back to the kitchen.

When the food comes, first spicy and small and later in large platters, smoking hot but cool on the mouth, they find themselves laughing. Beers go down easily and with each course, the woman calls out to them, "Still hungry?" Afraid to stop they laugh and nod, the dishes magically appearing and going away.

As the meal winds down, the woman sits with them and eats a cup of ice cream. Her brow is wet with sweat, and they laugh and watch as the restaurant slowly empties. In time, the taxi driver comes to the table, and the woman introduces him as her youngest.

"Is everyone here yours?" Ray asks.

"Only the good ones," she says and kisses her son on the cheek.


The ride home is slow and calm, the shops all closed and dark. It is late when they get to the hotel room and she turns and goes into the bathroom when they are in the room. Sleepily, he undresses and sits on the edge of the bed thinking about the meal and the day. Images of the old woman, the children on the beach, the dead man return to him.

When she returns, he is no longer tired, but just awake. "I'm sorry," she says, falling onto the bed next to him. Her arm lays open toward him, and he takes her hand. Her eyes, half open, look at him, and he knows that she is thinking about sex, recognizes the look from when they were first dating. For so long, he has felt washed out and now being wanted fills him again with something new. The sex is slow and steady and good and he smells the sangria on her breath, low like dry dirt in a sun shower.

Lying together, afterward, her eyes half closed now, Ray feels full. His mind feels light and he knows it's the sunburn and possibly dehydration but he lets the feeling linger and says, "We should have another baby."

A long moment passes and Ray realizes that she does not flinch at his asking. "You asleep?" he asks.

"No, I heard you," she says, turning her head toward him, her hair falling across her face like a veil.

"Do you think about it?"

"When I was little, I had an aunt who came to live with us. Aunt Honeywood," she says, and he feels his eyes close.

"Yes," he says, turning toward her, smelling her hair.

"She was pregnant. I didn't know it at the time. Pregnant and alone, and it was awful, Ray. Her husband had left her and here she was all alone and pregnant and stuck with us out on the farm in the middle of nowhere and I swore that I'd never be her."

"You're not her. You have me."

"And I used to think that. Before. When June was with us." His eyes open at the name. June. He hasn't thought of her as a person in a long time. Just a thing that happened. "I used to think that we were always going to be okay, and then I learned that there is no always."

"I'm ready for us to have another baby, Jules."

"Why? Why do you want a baby, Ray?"

"What do you mean, why?"

"I mean why are you ready to do this again? Why now? How can you even think of it?"

Ray rolls onto his back, and opens his eyes at the dark ceiling above him. He feels the sound of the ocean more than hears it. Feels his heart beat adjust to its rhythm, slows and relaxes. He feels the relaxation of the loved and protected, and knows why he wants children.

"I used to sit on my Dad's lap and watch the news with Walter Cronkite."

"Mmm," Julia sounds.

"There were all of these images that I didn't understand. Deaths and killing and shooting and still, sitting there, smelling my Dad, feeling his whiskers on my neck, I thought that those things couldn't touch me."

"But they can."

"But they touch everyone. That's no reason to stop going on. We're not going on, anymore, you know. We're stuck."

"Can't go forward, can't go back."

"No, we can go forward. It's the only way we can go."

"We could go apart. Sideways,"

"I don't want that. I never have."

"I need to hear that. Sometimes you are so alone."

"Not really. I'm just not engaged. Like a motor with the clutch in."

"And you think another baby will fix that?

"Yes, I do."

Time passes. Ray isn't sure how much. A few minutes? Half an hour? A long time until he feels himself start to nod to sleep and his body jerks like he is falling down stairs.

"Tell me a story, Ray. Tell me a story while I fall asleep. Tell me a story like you'll tell our child."

Ray feels his chest swell with the words. "Once upon a time," he starts. "Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived with a man who lived inside his own head. `Why do you live in your head,' the woman asked the man, but the man was so busy thinking of what to say that he forgot to answer her." Ray feels Julia move toward him, settling in. He feels her body relaxing. "Eventually, she decided that he didn't want to talk to her anymore and she went off by herself to have a baby. She thought that the baby could talk to her, but the baby died, and when she needed him most, the man spoke even less, because he was thinking about what had happened and couldn't find the right words to let her know that he was still in love with her, even with everything that had happened."

Her breathing slows and Ray puts an arm around her. "So, although the woman thought the man had withdrawn from her, had gone even further away, he was really thinking about her all the time. After a time, the man realized that in trying to get away from the pain he felt, he had moved so far away from the only thing that could cure the pain: his love for the woman."

He feels that she is asleep, but he goes on. "When they spoke, they realized together that the only way away from the pain was by being closer together, and so they decided to try again even though they were both afraid. But now they were afraid together, and it made all the difference."


Neal Gordon (nbgordon@i-2000.com) Began studying writing at Iowa State University, then transferred to the University of Iowa creative writing program. Following completion of his degree, he left the Midwest for the East Coast. He went to graduate school at Temple University. His work has appeared in magazines, compilations and online over the past decade.

InterText stories written by Neal Gordon: "When Something Goes" (v6n6), "The Worse Part" (v8n1), "Sunset" (v11n1).


InterText Copyright © 1991-2001 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 11, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2001 Neal Gordon.