A young woman was stationed on a quiet stretch of beach, using the rolled hem of her faded t-shirt's neckline to absorb the sweat that beaded over her upper lip. Her nut brown skin, particularly that of her smooth legs, noted her pale masculine companion, glistened like a wet pebble. The two were seated on a sun-bleached log, waiting for the thick brown tide to recede so they could search for freshwater springs that here and there bubbled up out of the black sand.
After having been evidently silent for some time, the man, who was staring intently at the horizon, said, "You ought to love him, you know, if he's your fiancé."
The young woman, whose childhood had been spent bare-bodied on that very same playa, did not look at anything except when she chose to focus on the man in the way she'd learned, as years slipped by like ice milk, that American and European men preferred to be looked at.
"Not true," was all she said in her rich accent.
"You ought to like him, then."
The air was thick with moisture, and smelt of salt, far-off horses, wilting greenery, and the scent of coconut oil. The sun hung bloated and drooping over the crashing ocean and the lush mountains.
"He's not your equal. In fact, he's a pig. I know, because if he was anything else, he'd stay away from you. He'd let you cultivate your potential."
"This potential didn't stop you, who are almost twice my age."
She dabbed at her lip with her shirt, then let loose laughter that bubbled up like one of the springs, and sang out as unavoidable as a hiccup. Dark rings of moisture were slowly easing their way out from underneath the man's armpits. An expression almost like shame twisted his ungainly features into something briefly noble. He knew, with the bright clarity of logical thought, that his irritation was unjustified and unfair. He knew she was a puta, a whore.
As if attuned to his thoughts, the young woman stretched her arms upward, forming an open space between her breasts that called out to be filled, and arched her back slightly. He watched these changes with only a flagging interest.
"Mi amor, why don't we go back to your room," she said. "It's too hot out here for lovers."
"I want to find the springs, so the answer is no."
When she frowned, he added, with a touch of sourness he'd rather have denied, "To put it another way, you're on my dime."
She stood up and, for a moment, he thought she would walk away from him, down the beach, and into one of the pitted packed-earth avenues that led to the main part of the tiny town. But she turned from the water, and held out her hand. He took it and allowed himself to be pulled up.
"The sea," she said, "It is far enough down now, I think."
They walked, hand in hand, across the still-hot sand to the flattest part of the beach, where the receding waves left shining stretches of trapped ocean that reflected the sky and the mountains with ethereal opacity. The young woman was holding her cheap, plastic flip-flops and digging her toes into the watery mirror. He hadn't taken off his shoes and was regretting it as tiny grains of sand slipped under his toenails and heels. Along the border of warm wetness and grainy dryness, the two kept their eyes downcast, searching. The man found his companion's easy quietness annoyed him and said:
"You're right that I'm twice your age. That means I've got more experience, right? I know guys like him. His type. He won't be good for you."
She said nothing.
"He'll make you into his slave," he went one, his voice rising in pitch. "You'll spend your life a glorified kitchen girl while he's out finding himself a new puta to play with every night."
"And you are so different? There is no woman in the United States who waits for you? Am I your only whore?"
He colored. A moment later, she'd let go of his hand and was squatting down next to a tide pool the size of a puddle. Under the clear water, the sand beneath rolled and bubbled as if it were boiling. She stuck in her finger. He, with some difficulty, knelt down next to her and did likewise.
"It's cool," he said.
"It is coming from deep underground where no one can find it."
The sun began its journey into the sea, turning the light and everything it touched a deep tangerine. Neither the man nor the young woman seemed to have any notion of rising.
"If one man is as good as any other," the man said, "why not marry me instead?"
"But señor, the man I will marry, he is rich."
The man wiped his thick fingers down his face, leaving behind off-white trails of sunscreen and sweat. He found his own obstinacy highly disturbing. In less than a month, he would be back in the United States, once again tackling the intricacies of his own culture. But, having been two months in the young woman's company, he had begun to fear being without her.
"What if I told you," said the man at length, "that getting married is not the business proposition you think it will be. If I say you will not be happy? What if I told you it will not turn a profit?"
She shrugged and said, "What is all you've said to me? What is the point of happiness?"
She pointed to an old bent man in a frayed white Oxford and dark tattered pants hobbling through the deep, black sand. He shouldered a metal grid decorated with hooks loaded with bags of crisp unripe mango and tiny grapeshot limes. As he walked, he smiled and hawked his wares in a sing-song baritone that seemed to meet in sympathetic resonance with the darkening sea.