Since the mid-1980’s, my family has been going to the same resort in Cancun, Mexico, for a week each winter.
The place is old school; low rise, with well-manicured grounds, white stucco walls, and red tile roofs. There are lots of retirees, and many families, who re-connect from year to year and have watched each other’s children grow up and buy timeshares of their own.
In March of 2015, I was there with my husband and daughter. I was determined to write a short story, and I had a hard time settling on what to write about. Sitting beside the pool one afternoon, I watched a young father follow his toddler around the pool deck, lap after lap after lap. I remembered those days with my own daughter, and I felt a pang that I could only describe as a mixture of relief and nostalgia.
“Brainfreeze” was inspired by that young father. You can read it here, at Rum Punch Press.
She wobbles along in impossibly tiny pink plastic clogs, chubby little arms outstretched like a tightrope walker. Each step is an accomplishment. Walking slowly behind, Randy’s pace is ponderously slow. A lap around the pool deck with a toddler takes ten minutes and twenty seconds, on average. He has calculated the average speed over the last three days.
His daughter stops, entranced by a bottle cap. She squats, balancing herself, before attempting to explore it with her mouth. Patiently, Randy takes it away and they continue, passing the lounge chairs that surround the pool. A quartet of women play bridge beneath an umbrella. A man passes Randy carrying a laundry basket brimming with neatly folded clothes. He has a small boy by the hand and his smile is empathetic.
Ten minutes ten seconds. A bit faster that time. The starting point of each lap is a lounge chair where Randy’s wife lies on a blue striped beach towel, her forearm over her eyes. Beside her, in the shade of an umbrella, is a stroller; one of those complicated models with a seat for a toddler and rack for an infant carrier above. Randy’s baby boy is sleeping, and so is his wife. In the harsh tropical sun, he notices dark rings beneath her eyes and milk stains on her t-shirt. It is eleven am. In the shallow end of the pool a father coaxes his young son to jump. The boy approaches with arms crossed and palms tucked into his armpits, then retreats, flapping his small hands.
Randy and his daughter begin another lap. A nimble poolside waiter sidesteps the toddler as she careens into his path. Holding his tray aloft, the man scans the pool deck, then looks at each person in the pool. “Señor?” The waiter asks Randy (Guillermo, his nametag says), “Can I offer you a piña colada today?” He smiles and raises his eyebrows. His teeth are pearly white.
“No, gracias,” Randy says.
“Somebody ordered this,” Guillermo indicates the tall, frosty drink on his tray, with its garnish of fresh pineapple and an impossibly red maraschino cherry, “then they left.” He makes an exaggerated shrug. “You like to have it? Otherwise I throw it away.”
Randy casts a covert glance toward the prone figure of his wife. She is still sleeping. “Okay then, thanks.” He smiles at the waiter and accepts the drink. It is fragrant with coconut and pineapple and rum. He tastes it, thinking that this drink is a holiday within itself; a chilled yin and yang of tart and sweet. Randy wonders why he has waited three days into his vacation to have one. The lap concludes, and he sinks into the lounge chair next to his sleeping wife. The toddler climbs up and flattens herself on his chest, looking drowsy. Randy rubs her little back, and pulls at the plastic straw, thinking that he has never enjoyed a drink quite as much. As his daughter’s eyes begin to flutter closed he sips, and settles back. Above him the palms sway, and the birds call. Looking out over the pool deck toward the beach he sees the prehistoric-looking frigate birds, gliding over the water. Small whitecaps appear and disappear and the ocean is crystalline turquoise in places and olive green where the seaweed grows. He sips his drink again and puts in on the small table beside his chair. A great-tailed grackle lands on the unoccupied chair beside him, regarding Randy with its clever yellow eyes. Its plumage is iridescent black and it has a shrewd, arrogant look. Randy has watched these birds at the outdoor restaurant. They work in tag-teamed pairs, the greenish-brown female doing a low, hat-skimming reconnaissance over the tables while her mate does the dirty work. In a single flap he can move from the retaining wall to a table, seeming to know when the waiter’s backs are turned to flick napkins at his mate. In two hops, he is eyeing the ceramic sugar-packet holder. The bird passes over the white, yellow and the blue packets, eschewing the processed white sugar and artificial sweeteners. Zeroing in on the brown packets of “natural” sugar, he deftly plucks one and flies back to the wall, pinning his prize beneath his claw. Using his beak to tear it, he shuffles the packet and enjoys his plunder.
The bird is still checking Randy out, cocking his head this way and that. In a flash, it hops onto the table and plucks the cherry that tops the skewer in Randy’s drink and flies off, holding the cherry by the stem. Randy chuckles and looks to see of anyone else has seen, but no one is looking his way. The drink is full, and it doesn’t seem to have melted at all. Must be some sort of specially insulated cups, he thinks. Cool. He smiles at his own pun. Sipping again, brainfreeze causes him to wince, clenching his jaw as the sharp waves of pain cross his forehead, making him appreciate his generally excellent health. Squeezing his eyes shut he holds his breath, waiting until the wave passes. Slow down, Randy, he thinks.
When he opens his eyes the bird is back on the chair beside him, and it drops to the table and releases something from its beak and flies away. Randy hears something roll on the glass table top and reaches for it. A pink pearl, about the size of a cocktail onion. It has no hole drilled into it and its surface is slightly irregular. Again, he checks to see if anyone has observed this remarkable occurrence, but no one is looking. At the adjacent umbrella a man is rubbing tanning lotion into a woman’s back while she reads. Ten feet away, children splash their father, and an amorous couple cavorts, reminding Randy of his honeymoon in Hawaii. The man is kissing the woman’s neck from behind and rubbing her shoulders.
Randy’s gaze moves out to the ocean again, and he watches the waves and the whitecaps. Are those fish jumping, those flashes of silver? He squints, as his daughter sighs in her sleep. Something moves in the waves again. Must be big ones.
There is something hypnotic about the waves, and the clouds. Out among the whitecaps an arm waves, and he focuses on a woman. She is smiling, and waving, apparently not in any distress. Her hair glitters in the sun. Quite the fancy bathing cap, Randy thinks. She continues to wave, and Randy looks around him and then points to himself. The woman nods enthusiastically. She dives below the surface. “No way,” Randy whispers, awed. No fucking way. A large, shining green tail breaks the surface and wriggles. Her head pops up again and she waves and dives. Randy blinks and then rubs his eyes and looks around. No one has taken notice. He takes off his ball cap and scratches his head. What do they put in these drinks? He holds up his cup, and it is still perfectly slushy and full to the brim. He has no idea how long he has been drinking it, or, for that matter, how long he has been sitting in this chair with his daughter asleep on his chest. He watches the water, but the vision does not return.
Two am feeding. The baby cries and Randy takes him from the porta-crib to his wife in their bed, then goes downstairs and checks on his sleeping daughter in her room. He kisses her forehead, then goes to the kitchen and opens a beer. He sits on the balcony, passing the time until his wife summons him to return the baby to his crib. There is a slight breeze ruffling the palms, and the moon is bright on the water. From here, he sees the lights and hears the booming bass of dance music from the ersatz pirate ship that takes tourists on booze cruises.
The beer tastes good, and he takes a large swig and swallows, then belches loudly. On the beach below his second-floor balcony he hears giggling, and splashing. Between the palm fronds he can see a glow of green phosphorescent light, like a kid’s glow-stick, only larger. Much larger. He moves his chair and can see more of the light. It is coming from the skin of three of the sparkly-haired women, sitting in a tide pool very near the shore. They laugh, their laughter sounding like wind chimes; tinkling and delicate. They are grooming each other. Two are braiding the hair of the third. The hair, at closer range, appears to be made of strands of brilliant tiny lights. Their fins, visible beneath the clear water, are shining green-silver; pearlescent. They are luminous, and beautiful. Randy leans forward, over the railing, entranced, feeling no fear, nor any need to summon his wife to see this. He wants to savor this sublime moment by himself. These mermaids, (for that is all Randy knows to call them) do not seem to speak, but only to coo, and laugh their melodious laughs. They touch each other lovingly, stroking necks and arms. The one who is being groomed glows more brightly than the others and makes a trilling sound. Their skin has a golden hue. Not gold like toasted bread, but a softly metallic green-gold. Randy can see that their teeth are rounded, and look like pearls. Their breasts are small and pert, and where the nipples should be there are brilliant round stones that reflect the green glow in flashes. Their movements are languorous and infinitely graceful.
The beer bottle is full again. As an experiment he takes a huge slug of beer, almost half of the bottle. Damn, Randy thinks, brainfreeze. He winces. How can beer be that cold? He wonders if minutes or hours have passed. Looking back at the tide pool he is disappointed to see that it is empty.
Upstairs, his wife sleeps, with his contented son cradled beside her. Randy returns him to the porta-crib. He gets into his bed and begins to fondle his wife, feeling an ardor has not felt in months. She is an accommodating, if not enthusiastic partner. Afterwards, he rolls onto his back, panting, sweating, and wipes the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. The dampness glows, greenish, on his hand. Looking down at his sweating chest he sees that it, too, glows a pulsing green.
The next day, Randy tells his wife to take the afternoon to herself. “Go to the spa, go shopping, whatever. You deserve a break, sweetheart,” he says. She acquiesces readily. Randy packs up the child care equipment (porta-crib, inflatable mini-pool, shovel and pail, hats, sunscreen in four varieties, diaper bag) and treks to the beach, trying to look masculine with a baby strapped to his chest. He sets up camp beneath a thatched sun shade.
Within minutes, Guillermo appears in his gleaming white uniform, tray aloft, and Randy orders a piña colada. Below the table that is built around the center pole of the thatched umbrella, his daughter digs in the sand, apparently contented. The baby gurgles in the porta-crib, delighted with his own toes. Life is good, Randy thinks. Guillermo returns, and Randy sips his drink, one arm crooked behind his head as he reclines on the lounge chair. At the next table a man is playing cards with a young girl while an overly-suntanned woman paints her toenails and smokes. She is extremely thin and frail looking and her skin reminds Randy of a pair of cordovan loafers he owned in college. Incongruously, she wears a strand of large pearls with her drooping swimsuit. She looks up and smiles and speaks in a raspy voice. “She’s a cutie.” She waves her cigarette towards the little girl.
“Thanks,” Randy says, thinking that he needs to come up with some additional response, even though he doesn’t want to talk to this woman. He just wants to watch the water. He says, “Have you been coming here long?”
“Years,” the leathery woman says, cigarette clamped between her wrinkled lips. “You must be new.”
“It’s our first time,” Randy says, “We’re thinking of buying a timeshare.” A great-tailed grackle perches on the empty lounge beside him and shimmies along the armrest, calling out, Tak, tak, tak!
A flashing in the water draws Randy’s attention from the desiccated woman. The mermaids wave, just beyond the swimming area that is demarcated by a line of rope with Styrofoam floats bobbing at intervals of ten feet or so. Hoisting his drink in salute, he glances side to side, feeling self-conscious. The family beside him has resumed painting nails and playing cards. On his right, a passel of interchangeable teenaged girls are plugged in to earbuds. Lifting his drink from the table, he is not surprised that it is full. He smiles to himself and drinks, then groans quietly as brainfreeze sets it. When it passes he is aware of his little girl slapping his thigh with her sand shovel. She holds out a handful of sand and pours it into his outstretched palm. Shaking the sand away, he reveals another pearl, very similar to the first. He rolls it in his fingers like a marble and his daughter reaches for it. “Pretty?” Randy asks.
“Gaaaaa,” his daughter answers.
Randy’s wife returns after lunch, carrying four heavy bags of groceries. She has gone for a run before shopping. He reminds her that there is a basket of laundry to be done at the resort’s lavanderia, and that he has a tennis lesson in the afternoon.
That night, Randy takes his beer and waits, with a pleasant sense of anticipation, on his balcony. Watching out, he notices three glowing figures below the surface as they swim toward the shore. When they reach the swimming area, they hold the rope, and as he watches with delight, the rope begins to glow, and the Styrofoam floats begin to pulse light, at first in a succession, and then in a rhythmic series of patterns, like disco lights. Randy is mesmerized, and again, he wonders how long he has been sitting there, watching the light show. The mermaids release the rope and the lights slowly flicker and fade as the trio makes its way to shore. He watches their grooming ritual, an eager voyeur, although he knows they are aware of his presence. When they are finished, they lean their heads together and their bubbling giggles float up to him. Turning towards him, they beckon with graceful motions.
Randy scratches his head. Should I? He holds up his index finger: Be right down! He inches open the sliding glass door and pulls his bathing trunks from the back of the chair where they had been left to dry. Inside, he slips into his trunks and, in the semi-darkness searches for a pen. He makes do with his daughter’s green crayon, and scrawls a note: Went for diapers. Back soon. Taking his room keycard, he hurries down the steps and out onto the beach. The mermaids hold out their arms, and he enters the water. They have left the shallow tide pool, and they bob, at intervals, holding onto the buoy line, creating another light display. He swims toward them and they surround him. He feels unusually buoyant, and seems to stay afloat without making any effort to scull the water or kick his legs. The mermaids stroke his arms and shoulders, and their hands are cold, with a slippery texture. Up close, he observes, they are not hands at all, but webbed, reptilian claws. Their eyes are reptilian as well; the pupils horizontal slits, the eyelids closing from the bottom upwards. He is simultaneously intrigued and repulsed. Their skin, which glowed golden from a distance, is rough when viewed at close range, the sheen coming from transparent, tiny scales, scales that feel slimy when their arms brush his. Beneath their sparkly hair he sees gills in their necks, and out of the water they smell of brine and seaweed.
Randy tries to push away, and realizes that his hands and legs are bound with long strands of kelp. The more he thrashes the more tightly it seems to bind him. Turning his head back toward the shore he realizes, with horror, that he is at least a mile out. Longingly, he traces the silhouette of the resort with his eyes, counting the balconies to pick out his own; dark, closed up, safe and tight. He feels himself being tugged beneath the surface and the mermaids are laughing and glowing. Beneath the surface, their laughter is still audible. As Randy descends the water becomes colder, then frigid. Brainfreeze. He opens his mouth and calls out his wife’s name, and then his children’s.
The great-tailed grackle calls out, Chit-chit-chit-chit! Randy jerks awake, gasping, and he is back on the lounge chair, by the pool. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he realizes he is sweating profusely. He removed his cap and rubs his face with both palms, noticing a briny tang on his skin. What a weird dream, he thinks as he kisses the top of his daughter’s head and reaches over to stroke his wife’s arm tenderly.
The clock above the bar says it is noon. The bird’s yellow eyes sum up the situation, and it flies off, tail fanning, wings shining black-purple-blue. The baby begins to cry, startled by the bird’s loud call, and on Randy’s chest, the little girl opens her eyes and rubs them with her fists. Swiveling his head, he sees the full piña colada on the table, minus the cherry garnish. The aroma of the drink makes him slightly queasy. His daughter climbs down from his chest, and tugs at his trunks, wanting to walk. He swings his legs to a sitting position, then he stands and lifts the complaining baby. His little fist is clenched, and he opens it, dropping a large pearl into the carrier.
Randy picks up the pearl and rolls it between his fingers. His son’s diaper is pungent. “Let’s get you changed, Bud,” he says to the baby. “Come on, honey,” he says to his little girl. “Let’s let Mommy get some sleep. Let’s go to the store.”
With both children in tow, Randy heads to the resort’s mini-mart. Walking through the pool complex he passes a lounge chair where the leathery woman with the pearl necklace is having her feet rubbed by her husband. She lifts her sunglasses and winks at Randy.
Randy buys diapers and an inflatable dolphin ring for his daughter. When he pulls his room card from his pocket there is a long brownish strand of seaweed is wrapped around it. On the way out, he passes the spa, and he stops and books a facial and a massage for his wife. The pleasant-faced spa attendant fills out a card with the name and time, and hands it to Randy, saying, “What a sweet husband you are!”
Back at his room, Randy juggles the stroller, and the inflated dolphin ring and the bag of diapers as he unlocks the door. Inside, he drops the bag on the kitchen table and stops. There is a note, written in green crayon in his handwriting: “Went for diapers Back soon.”