A worker catering to tourists at a Dominican resort dreams about elevating his status — but at what cost?
Alberto ‘Mojo’ Peña
Music and Sound Design by
Audio engineering by
Guests from the Champagne and Lobster Cruise headed across the beach, teetering toward the resort on the hill. Some of them Pablo knew by the drinks he’d served them during his second shift — rum punch, margarita-no-salt, and bourbon, neat – none of it champagne. Some of the women he knew by first name, could evoke what they tasted like after a shower. Those who would sometimes request he answer to a different name. He’d been working since before sunrise, to catch and scale the fish the guests would devour as sushi later. Now the sun was setting, but he still wasn’t done. Management required he wait on the beach until the last guest exited the boat.
He allowed his eyes to rest on the ocean. That mass of black ink retreated, then pushed hard against the shore. There were sharp pebbles strewn about, in the place where there had been only sand that morning. No one at the resort had bothered asking any locals what to do about the aggressive seaweed. Pebbles would do nothing to hamper its nightly progress into the beach. Pablo’s father, a lifelong fisherman before he died, would have known the answer. His grandfather, who’d also worked the sea, would have known, too. Pablo thought, if asked, he would remember what he’d been taught as a child.
“Bartender,” a woman slurred. She was one of the last two guests from the cruise. “Are you free tonight? Want to meet us at the club?”
Her hair was braided in cornrows, with brightly colored beads at the ends. When she stumbled, her hair made a sound of young children playing. He thought it ridiculous, that she’d gotten this hairstyle when only little girls wore their hair in such a way. Still, he was two starred reviews away from becoming a Platinum Member Companion. Although this woman could hardly afford an en suite massage (with or without fucking) — what with the hair, and the makeup caked on, and the romper she wore, thin material so cheap it turned see-through when wet — her reviews were as good as those of the rich guests who frequented the resort. It would only take a few moments to show them kindness, and in return, who knew? If she completed a review, he would gain a new world. He’d no longer have to slip his fingers into the waiting mouths of women who’d been drinking since breakfast, whose tongues were slimy as they squirmed, or snap pictures of entitled tourists as they hung out of the bow of the ship at sunset, always acting out the same moment from the same movie he’d never seen (I’m flying, they’d shout). Instead he’d live in the main hotel, with his own room and his own magnetic key. He’d get to entertain guests during meals, make light conversation during shows as he enjoyed orchestra seats in the hotel auditorium. And, best of all, when he had children, they’d get to go to the American school where the hotel’s most senior staff had their children educated. His kids would get to learn English, first.
It would only take a few moments to show them kindness, and in return, who knew? If she completed a review, he would gain a new world.
Pablo caught the gringa before she fell and carried her across a stretch of beach where the sharpest pebbles hurt his feet. A few steps behind them, another woman snorted, then hacked a smoker’s dry cough.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” she said.
Her voice was thick, deep; something sexy in it.
The woman in Pablo’s arms tightened her grip around his neck. He liked her heavy warmth, and his heart quickened pleasantly with the effort of carrying her. But her warmth couldn’t make him forget Vida, who hadn’t answered his calls, no matter how many times he’d tried her from the cruise. Vida, who’d hurried away from him earlier today, the curve of her elbow roping against her middle as if bracing for an unpleasant wind. He’d thought of running after her, but he had to get to the cruise. Some had been fired for less than abandoning their post.
In his arms, the woman leaned her head against his shoulder. When she sighed, the breeze carried the reek of recent vomit elsewhere. They reached the wooden pathway, lit by in-ground lights that made it easier to see their way to the resort. He set her on her feet.
“God, Christine,” her sexy-voiced friend said, catching up to them, “why are you so embarrassing? It’s our last night. Sober up.”
“Why are you such a sourpuss?” Christine’s braids swung side to side, as she bent down to slip on plastic flip-flops. “It’s so beautiful here. Why can’t you just be happy?”
The resort, at the top of the hill, was majestic. It was built like a crown up top, and each peak was brilliant with dazzling lights. All three continued walking in quiet, and in their silence the nature around them came to life. There were cicadas, night frogs, the strange fluttering of a small animal among some bushes ahead. As the wind from the beach fell farther away behind them, the air grew sticky, hot. Pablo picked up the pace.
Sexy-voiced Sourpuss took a cigarette out of her bag and lit it. He could see in the low light that her eyes were set too close. Nose too big, forehead too small, a sneer set in her mouth. Her eyes met Pablo’s as she inhaled from her cigarette, leaving the lighter on even when she no longer needed it. Have a good look, she seemed to say.
Christine tugged at Pablo’s sleeve and left her hand on his arm. With chest heaving, she said, “Wait a sec—I need to rest.” They could see the main stairway to the resort’s lobby at the tip of the slope. He felt a surprising tenderness toward this woman. Was it her hand, stubby-fingered and nail-polish-free, that reminded him so much of Vida’s? Was it because he knew that with one act of kindness, he’d get the review that would bring him closer to the stability that would surely win Vida back?
“So, will you?” she asked when she had caught her breath. “Will you come to the club later? Maybe teach me the merenga?”
“Sounds fun,” Pablo said.
During his father’s last living days, Vida had spent nearly all her time in their small shack and had from time to time forced his father to stand, to dance merengue with her — to keep his strength up, she’d said. By that point, there was no need for her to prepare and apply the healing ointments she was known for. Pablo had been puzzled by her visits. It’d been clear to all three of them that his father wouldn’t last very long – was by then beyond the healing powers of a curandera. It wasn’t until his father asked her if she wanted to learn to fish and she’d eagerly consented that Pablo had suddenly understood. That day, out in the ocean, they’d hooked a mahi-mahi, his father’s favorite. Vida, delighted to have caught it, had asked him to throw the fish back. It’s too precious to eat, she’d said. Surprising himself, he’d agreed.
Now, Christine turned from him to watch the nightly fireworks display that had begun. The booming explosions cracked the dark sky into wild, bright veins. She moved her hand down to meet his.
Pablo’s phone vibrated. He reached for it with his free hand. It was Pasofino, his best friend, who’d sent a text. Come to Mama Juana’s STAT. That used to be the text he’d get several times a week back before he met Vida. He and Pasofino would hang out, shit-talk the job. After things got more serious with Vida, he would still go, sometimes with her, but less frequently. These days he preferred staying at the resort, putting all his effort into his goal. If it hadn’t been for Vida’s visit to the resort earlier that day, he would have stayed put, entertained these gringas. But her presence in the resort must have been her signal for him to persist. To seek her out this time, and recapture their magic in a place they both felt free. On my way, he texted back. It would be his first time in weeks off the property. Surely, tonight — a Thursday night, the best at Mama Juana’s — he’d get his Vida back.
Christine squeezed his hand and smiled widely at him. “We’re home! What do you say? Disco date?”
They stood at the foot of the main building, exclusively for Platinum Members. He was surprised to learn they were staying here, in the priciest section of the resort. Had they won this vacation? Sexy-voiced Sourpuss glanced at the fireworks, perfecting the drunk-trying-to-look-sober stance.
“Sure, sure,” he said, hoping she’d stop asking. It worked. Christine finally let go of Pablo’s hand and began to make her way into the lobby.
Pablo stayed outside and gazed up the face of those nine stories. Small shadows moved on every floor. There was a difference between those figures. Some leaned out of balconies, sipping from wine glasses, their gazes falling into the darkness. Others, uniformed, moved carts topped with room-service trays, cleaning supplies, towels, sheets. On the outdoor patio of the lobby floor, white fabric swayed in the breeze while patrons in tuxedos and sparkly gowns stood around Porfirio, the violinist, who played a lovely melody, soft and romantic. Underneath that music, reggaeton pulsed, coming from the sunset pool party that always carried on far past sunset, and the two women stopped to do a little dance.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Christine yelled at him, upsetting the other patrons, whose shoulders stiffened. The two friends high-fived and stumbled on, and every few steps tried to gyrate their hips, unsuccessfully.
Pablo turned to go – the last thing he needed was to be associated with these women. But just then his asshole boss Laura stepped up to Porfirio, who had stopped playing the violin to chit-chat with some guests. She smiled brightly at the guests until they glided away and then turned her stiff eyelids toward Porfirio. Pablo knew exactly what she was saying – stay focused, don’t bullshit, one more demerit and your dreams of Platinum Member Companion are toast! It was the same threat that kept Pablo in line. Fortunately, Laura didn’t notice him loitering this time. She pivoted away from Porfirio into the lobby – no doubt looking for another slacker pendejo to make miserable. He focused on the music coming from the pool. It was a song he and Vida had danced to often. Las mano arriba, cintura sola, Da media Vuelta…
The last time Vida had slept over, he’d been working the pool party. She’d sat at the bar, amused at the crude music, at all the Dominicans making sure the gringos had a good time. This is work? she’d asked him. It was so easy in her eyes – since her own work was so physical. As a curandera, she used her hands, her entire body to cure people of ailments big and small. A few weeks after their fishing trip, when Pablo’s father died, Vida decided abruptly to stop the healing work.
That night, in his dirt-floored staff room, she’d joked about his ambitions to be a Platinum Member Companion. What could possibly be appealing in being tethered to another human being, a stranger, for days at a time? Following their every whim like the lapdogs these women loved to travel with? He’d explained the perks: as close to a guarantee of lifetime employment in the resort – as long as the survey scores showed high satisfaction. He told her how he’d be able to work a quarter of his scheduled hours, have his own room where paying guests stayed.
“Eventually, maybe, I’ll be able to stop with these women,” he’d blurted.
“Stop what with them?” she’d asked carefully.
His silence had brought everything between them into stillness. She’d gotten up very slowly and left.
Days later, when he’d mustered the courage to show up at her door, she’d asked him straight up — are you ready to give them up? But could he? There were so many people waiting for a job like his, who’d be willing to do anything — didn’t she understand? That focusing on the only useful skill he had, fishing, was impossible to do now that the resort had its own fishing boats. That it didn’t matter whether he loved it, when it provided no lifeline. She’d pushed him hard, out the front door, yelled it wasn’t true, that there were plenty of ways to make a living. She’d called his goal porquerías, told him it was clear what he desired was the life afforded only to those who lived in the resort. Startled, he’d left without saying what he’d come there to tell her — about the schools, about their future children. He’d been shocked she didn’t seem to want the same.
Ahead of him, Porfirio’s violin conquered all sound. The music was no longer pretty, no longer romantic. He played masterfully with an intensity that translated what most of the workers must be feeling at that moment. Or was it just Pablo? Sometimes, the entire place was exhaustingly difficult to understand.
She’d joked about his ambitions to be a Platinum Member Companion. What could possibly be appealing in being tethered to another human being, a stranger, for days at a time?
The hand-painted sign said “Thursday Nights Locals Only,” in English, to make it plain for those who were unwelcome. At Mama Juana’s Beyond Proof (known as The Gringo Trap to locals), the live music was in full swing and every staff member from the resort who had a night off was there, letting go. There were drums, a güira, a bass guitar, and a singer who gave his heart a jolt – in profile, she had Vida’s pointy, dimpled chin. Pasofino sat at the bar, nursing a bottle of Presidente. They’d known each other since they were as small as Mama Juana’s girls.
Behind the bar, Mama Juana’s brow furrowed as she stared at her phone.
“I know,” Pasofino was saying, “but if they’re with Leticia, they’re fine. She probably just lost track of time. Bet you they’re at the waterfall, her phone battery dead.”
Pablo took the empty stool next to Pasofino, who gave him a loud smack on the back in greeting.
“What’s going on?” Pablo asked.
“I left Leticia with the girls this afternoon,” Mama Juana said. “But when I got here they were all gone. She’s not picking up her phone. Hasn’t responded to texts. Anything happen to my girls…”
“Why don’t I try her?” Pablo said and dialed. Leticia, the opposite of her stuck-up, bossy sister Laura. She’d grown careless with her babysitting duties over the last few months, had hit Pablo up for any extra pills he might have. He’d indulged her with growing frequency, not wanting to be on the bad side of the boss’s sister.
“Fuck this,” Mama Juana said, and asked Pasofino to take over the bar. She’d go over to her house a short distance away, where she could hear herself think, and call the police.
“Is that why you texted?” Pablo asked as they watched her weave through the bodies of people around them. Pasofino nodded.
“Are you worried?”
Pasofino nodded again.
Pablo wasn’t terribly close to Dulce (Mama Juana’s real name), but they’d all grown up together. They were a community. Mama Juana’s two girls, Niña and Perfecta, were eight and six years old, and often out of sight from the goings-on in the bar. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen them and could not.
Down the bar, the women who worked for Mama Juana huddled together, and he assumed one must be telling a joke or sharing the latest outrageous story of a client’s kinky desires. Young or old, soft or hard, everyone would have a story to share. Often, there was something in their eyes — a vacancy, a toughness that set them apart. Sometimes, he wished he could ask them what it was like for them, to sleep with strangers. He wanted to ask the older ones if it ever got easier. If they too felt sad and dirty when finished.
“You all right?” Pasofino asked him.
“Hell yeah,” he said, “just hungry.”
Off to the side, someone was roasting sweet plantains on sticks in an open fire. There was a lot of smoke but underneath it was sweetness. He stood and went over to the food. He grabbed what was ready and ate, searching among the newcomers that arrived every few minutes. In the stillness, he became aware of how bad he smelled – fish guts and spilled alcohol, a lethal combination. Why hadn’t he gone to his room, taken a quick shower? Surely, Vida would arrive any moment.
He took his phone out, called Vida first, then on failing, tried Leticia again.
The phone rang, rang.
“A round of shots on me,” Pasofino said, calling him over. “Twenty American dollars says Leticia arrives in the next hour with the girls.”
Pasofino reached into the cooler beneath the bar and handed Pablo a beer. Then, grabbing some container filled with a bright, yellow liquid, he served shots to everyone at the bar. Inside the cooler, several blocks of ice cracked loudly, a sound exaggerated by the lull in the live music. Passion fruit seeds floated in the glass Pasofino handed Pablo. Pablo felt them slide down his throat when he took the shot. Instantly, he felt better, that warmth spreading.
Pablo swiveled around. His eyes searched the crowd.
They’d all grown up together. They were a community. Mama Juana’s two girls, Niña and Perfecta, were eight and six years old, and often out of sight from the goings-on in the bar.
Soon Mama Juana returned. “The police said the girls aren’t missing unless they’ve been gone for twenty-four hours,” she said, as she took the stool next to Pablo. She cradled her face inside both hands, laid her forehead against the bar. “Twenty-four hours.”
“What do you want to do?” Pasofino asked.
The moon cast a brilliant white light over the blackness of the ocean. The light rippled, then ridged. It extended over the bodies of all those on the beach. Everyone was in their late teens, early twenties. All those bodies moved as one, arms and legs bare. Pablo felt like an asshole because he enjoyed the motion, so easy, as if he’d wandered into a shaded area in the middle of a bright day. He knew Mama Juana was terribly worried. But the drums and the güira made him want to dance. He went in his pocket, pulled out his phone, swiped through old photos of Vida. There, the image he was looking for. Last time they were here, Pasofino took the picture, Vida’s ass grinding against Pablo, his eyes fixed on her neck. He’d been shocked when Pasofino sent him the image because the lust was so clear. But clearer still was what hadn’t been captured in the photo – how much he adored her. They’d been together a few months short of a year. Had spent all their free time together once his father died. He’d often thought it was the gift his father had left him, that invitation to take her out to sea – a way to ensure he wouldn’t be alone. La Curandera who’d tried but failed to save his father could maybe rescue him from all his despair.
“I’m going to lose my mind if I have to wait an entire day,” Mama Juana said.
“How long has it been?” Pablo asked.
“I left them a bit before two o’clock.”
“It’s just after nine. That doesn’t seem long enough to be worried.”
“It’s past their bedtime,” Mama Juana said.
“It isn’t long enough to be worried,” Pablo repeated.
Mama Juana gave him a hard stare. “You, of all people, know what these fucking tourists get away with, Pablo.”
The huddled group of women parted and turned at Mama Juana’s tone. Several murmured agreement.
Mama Juana went on. “Toqui didn’t get back on time… If I hadn’t caught the bastard and got her to the hospital, she would be dead. He shot her full of so many drugs it’s a miracle she’s still breathing. Ask me if the police went to pick him up?”
Pablo didn’t know what to say. He’d been wrapped up in Vida’s absence, but now realized that among the women, there was an empty space that belonged to Toqui. Mama Juana, visibly annoyed by his silence, went down the length of the bar and after a brief exchange, many of the women left.
“Do you want to go look for them?” Pasofino asked Mama Juana.
Pablo told himself he would try Vida one last time. If she didn’t pick up, he’d call it a night. Go back to his dirt-floored room in the staff quarters of the resort. The phone rang and rang. When her voicemail picked up, he listened to it, savoring her voice. He hung up before it ended.
“Maybe. I want to be here in case Leticia turns up.”
“We can go,” Pasofino said, motioning to Pablo. Mama Juana shook her head.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Let’s give it an hour and if they’re not here, we’ll all go.”
“Look at this one,” Pasofino said. “Still heartbroken Vida won’t take you back? Listening to her voicemail again?”
Mama Juana extended a hand over Pablo’s. “She told me she felt terrible earlier. Her plan was to get some rest tonight.”
“Just what we need,” Pasofino said, interrupting Mama Juana, jabbing Pablo’s ribs with an elbow. “The gringos have infiltrated the trap.”
When Pablo looked up, he was surprised to see the two women from the resort. He had assumed they would pass out in their rooms and forget all about their dancing plans, but now here they were. Christine wore a pretty blue halter-top dress. Sourpuss hadn’t bothered changing. They both lit up as soon as they saw him.
“Hell no,” Mama Juana said. “Locals only means locals only.”
“They’re not like the others,” Pablo said to Mama Juana, quietly. If Vida really wasn’t coming, maybe the night could be salvaged. He would make sure the gringas had such a great time that they’d give him the last two starred reviews he needed. It was possible all it would take to convince Vida to take him back was achieving this status, showing her how much better her own life would be when she gave her body the kind of rest she’d never known.
“Bartender!” Christine said.
“Leticia wouldn’t let anything bad happen to them,” Mama Juana said to Pasofino, eyes lingering on the newcomers. “Right?”
“Of course not,” he said, and Pablo felt a surge of guilt, wondering if Pasofino really had no idea about the pills, about Leticia’s neglect in her duties as the resort’s babysitter, how Laura had been covering for her. He almost brought it up now, but sensing how worried Mama Juana was about the girls, he thought better of it. He would likely only make things worse.
Meanwhile, the tourists were upon him. He exaggerated familiarity, folded them both into a big hug. They smelled nauseatingly sweet – of perfume, or maybe lotion, meant to smell like tropical flowers, that barely covered up a day of sweat. Christine did a little curtsey, and he gave her a thumbs up, figuring those glassy eyes meant they had hit up the minibar with their free time.
“The violinist said we might find you here,” Sourpuss said, with a smirk.
“You ready to teach us to dance?” Christine asked him.
Pablo leaned toward his friend’s ear, quickly explained how close he was to Platinum Member Companion. Pasofino raised an eyebrow. He’d spent years trying but had eventually decided no one was truly meant to achieve the status, because of the indecipherable process the hotel had set up. Had told Pablo it was better to settle for the comforts of the longer days than chase after an impossibility. But now, maybe because it had been so long since they’d been out together, or maybe because of the edge of desperation Pablo heard in his own voice, Pasofino took Sourpuss’s hand. They went into the crowd, didn’t stop until they were right in the heart of it.
There was a funk that waited for them there, sure, but it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. Under that malodor everyone smelled like what they did — detergent from laundry, fruit from smoothies, dirt from gardening. His own smell was familiar to all, a stronger stink. The act of sex, the promise of sex, the regret of sex. He couldn’t deny it. He loved the way every body touched every other body. They were sweaty, drunk. By the time Pasofino tugged at his arm, yelled that Mama Juana wanted to go look for the girls, Pablo shook his head. “Call me if you need me,” he said, then turned his body toward the tourists.
The act of sex, the promise of sex, the regret of sex. He couldn’t deny it.
At eleven o’clock, an alert came from his phone as a vibration. He glanced at it absentmindedly, numb from so many drinks that he wasn’t even thinking of Vida anymore. The text came from Leticia. I had to go, she wrote.
This time, her phone didn’t even ring; it went straight to voicemail. He looked for her on social media, found that she’d updated her status. The picture was unmistakable. Out of an airplane’s window, a wing – beyond the wing, an endless carpet of fluffy white clouds.
Had she taken the girls out of the country? What the hell had she done?
Pablo stumbled out of the crowd. His thoughts were hazy. He’d never wanted to go. Not to New York City with all the green dollars, or to Spain with Euros, or Argentina, where one of his clients had once told him he’d not have to work another day in his life, that he could feast on the juiciest steaks until his arteries exploded. He’d had no desire, ever, to leave this land, this heat, these people he’d grown up with. He imagined Leticia finally finding a place where she could settle, take root, give up the pills. But she was so young, not even eighteen. She seemed to always be escaping responsibility, wanting to remain forever a kid. He didn’t believe her capable of making good choices no matter what environment. He wished she’d reached out to him before she got on the plane. He would have explained. She’d be exchanging one set of humiliations for another, in a colder place.
Pablo went toward the beach, thinking to wash his face, to sober up. Most people had left. It was the gray in-between time, of night thinning into day. The full moon was still visible, through some dense fog. The last time he’d seen the girls – when was it? A month ago? Two? – this was the exact sky that had draped behind them. One of the girls had pulled on his hand. “The fog is hiding beautiful colors inside it,” she’d said, “like a belly hides food.”
He smashed his phone’s keypad. Where are the girls?
Leticia is typing, his phone said. Then, stopped. No words came through.
He thought to call Mama Juana and Pasofino, who had yet to return. But how would his phone call help? He didn’t actually know anything. He went back among the dancers. He danced and drank. Danced and drank, for a long time, until the music stopped and everyone else had left, until the only people at Mama Juana’s bar were the three of them.
The tourists then decided to go for a walk on the beach. They wanted to know if it was safe, for them to walk on this beach at night so far away from the resort. He assured them it was. He went back to the bar to charge his phone and fumbled until he found a bottle of water. When he stood up, a white man was sitting there. He looked familiar, and Pablo tried to place him. Maybe he’d been on the cruise earlier.
“I left a fanny pack here earlier today,” he said to Pablo. The man didn’t blink as he spoke, and his tone commanded quick action.
Pablo told him in his best English he’d take a look around. He found it quickly enough, in the lost-and-found bin on the other side of the bar. “You can trust us locals,” he said, noticing the man’s passport and wallet remained inside the unzippered fanny pack. When he extended the fanny pack, he noticed the man’s wrinkled fingertips. The marks of a person who’d spent hours at sea. He held the man’s surprisingly bright green eyes and was struck by the amount of coldness he found. Not one note of gratitude or relief. Pablo felt a chill down his spine.
“Fun at the beach today?” Pablo asked him.
The man stood and walked away, didn’t bother to respond.
From the beach, Sourpuss was yelling they would miss their flight if they didn’t go immediately, pack their shit up and leave for the airport. Christine was yelling back, saying to chill the fuck out, they still had two hours. They would be fine if they checked their luggage curbside.
When he tried to find the man’s retreating figure, he’d vanished. Pablo drank from his bottle of water, reminded himself to snap out of his stupor. He’d had too much to drink, that’s all. Why in the world would he think the man had anything to do with the missing girls?
“Not to worry,” he said. “I know a shortcut. We’ll be in the resort in a few minutes.”
As he left, Pasofino arrived with Mama Juana, who was now crying. They’d heard Leticia had stolen a vehicle and money from a tourist. The police had acted very quickly the minute the tourist had made the complaint.
“You’re leaving?” Pasofino asked him.
Pablo pointed at the tourists.
“They found their way here on their own,” Pasofino said, steel in his voice.
“We can find our way,” Sourpuss said, tugging at Christine’s hand as she began to walk. Christine pushed her friend’s hand away. She stood her ground, waiting for Pablo.
“Sourpuss,” Pablo said to Christine, pointing his mouth at Pasofino. She laughed, then squinted at him.
“Can you go by Laura’s? Leticia wouldn’t have left without telling her sister something,” Mama Juana now said.
“We have to go,” the real Sourpuss said.
“I’ll go straight to Laura,” Pablo said. “I’ll find out whatever there is to know.”
What would Laura think if she saw him like this? The women buckled up in the back of the SUV Pablo had borrowed from the resort. Neither sat upfront with him. Momentarily, he felt humiliated. He sat a little straighter, sped up the car, reminded himself to smile. He’d feel much better once he got some coffee, sobered up.
The women went back and forth about what waited for them back home — wiping dirty old ass, they both said. Wait until we tell the girls at work, they said. Who had the last laugh, about our too-good-to-be-true Costco vacation package? An entire night, partying at the beach. Not bad for two old broads, huh, Pablo?
They knew his name. That was worth something. He glanced at them through the rearview mirror, smiling as wide as they did. How long would this happiness last? They both were as red as skinless tomatoes, he saw now with the lightening sky. They’d be in pain for weeks, skin sore, layers peeling. Would it all seem worth it to them?
“What can we do for you?” Christine asked, suggestively.
He told them about the reviews, about how close he was to spending more time entertaining guests. “Next time you come, I’ll be able to spend the entire day with you,” he said, eyeing Christine through the rearview. He rose up on his seat to catch Christine’s phone light up her face. Saw her fingertip hover over the screen.
“Diamond review numero uno done,” she said. “Numero two coming up.”
But Sourpuss wouldn’t hand over her phone. Christine laughed, reassured Pablo she’d get it done. “Anything for you, mi amor. Could you give me a hand with my luggage?”
Pablo felt the world spin. Of course, Christine would want him to go to her room. Of course, he wouldn’t be making any attempt to speak to Laura.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said. “I just have to go by my room to freshen up, if you don’t mind.”
Pablo thought of the long hours they had worked to make it here. How each moment of pleasure he’d give her would make all the hardship insignificant.
“I’d prefer if you don’t shower,” she said, giggling. Sourpuss whistled, then loudly, so loudly, said, “You’re a fucking pervert.”
He smashed his phone’s keypad. Where are the girls?
Leticia is typing, his phone said. Then, stopped. No words came through.
The fishnet, stuck in the water, jerked against Pablo’s pull. He’d had no sleep, but a new day had begun. The boat’s motion made the nausea rise in his throat. He’d learned long ago never to drink as much as he had last night. He’d be paying for it all day. He didn’t have the strength to pull hard against whatever was holding the net in place. He put a hat over his face as he leaned down onto the deck. Seawater soaked through his shirt, cool in the early morning chill. He closed his eyes.
He’d gone to Leticia’s and Laura’s shack, the largest in the staff’s quarters, as soon as he’d helped the gringas into the airport shuttle. He figured it was the right thing to do. He had raised his hand, ready to knock when the morning wind brought the smell of the latrines the staff had to use. This part of the resort was still under construction — hotel management kept promising them world-class accommodations, but construction kept getting put off. Pablo knew it would never happen. Poised to knock, he was momentarily struck by Laura’s singing voice, so different from her shrill speaking voice. It was clear and melodic. He imagined how quickly Laura would fire him as soon as she took one look at him.
He’d texted her instead. Mama Juana’s girls are missing. Leticia was the last person seen with them. You got any idea where the girls might be? Leticia posted a pic of a plane.
On the other side of the door, he’d heard the alerts on her phone as Laura stopped singing. “Fuck you, Pablo,” she’d said loudly.
No response came through in the text. He turned around. He was glad he hadn’t knocked.
Now Pasofino was kicking him awake. “Time for last haul,” he said. “We were looking for the girls for hours and you were too busy drinking over Vida to help? Or were the tourists really that important?”
“You need to leave me the fuck alone,” Pablo said.
“Gladly,” Pasofino said, stepping back onto his own boat.
The sun had burned through the fog. It was charged, the air around him. The heat of the sun warmed his body as the boat tilted this way, then that. There was an ache behind his eyeballs.
Pablo pulled at the net again and this time, it came up with no resistance. He was met with hundreds of squirming shrimp and an octopus with radiant skin that shined pink, purple, electric blue as its tentacles narrowed and enlarged. He took his catch and placed it in the coolers that lined one side of the boat.
There was a commotion over by one of the other boats. Federico was screaming for help. By the time Pablo’s boat arrived, the other fishermen had hauled the bodies out of the water. Niña and Perfecta, Mama Juana’s girls. Their hair had been shaved. He didn’t allow himself to register the ropes that tied them together, the bruises around their necks, refused-refused-refused to register any of it.
Pablo leaned over the boat, retched, felt a numbness spreading. Pasofino’s shoulders shook as he made his way onto the other boat. He picked up the smaller girl and hugged her. He called her name so gently, as if trying to wake her from sleep. Other men in other boats gathered around them.
“Someone has to call Mama Juana,” Pablo said.
But none of the men reacted. Pasofino had removed his shirt, was covering the younger girl’s body. Federico removed his shirt, was dressing the older girl. Pablo took his phone out, called Mama Juana.
“We found them,” Pablo said. “Your girls.”
“Where?” she asked. “Are they okay?”
His throat locked.
On the other side, silence, followed by a tumbling sound. And then, somewhat muted, the screaming began.
There was a commotion over by one of the other boats. Federico was screaming for help.
The door of the Presidential Suite flung open and Pablo found Melba, his new client, in a black robe. She was nude underneath — he could tell by the way the silk clung to her skin as she sauntered ahead. She’d washed off her makeup and looked surprisingly youthful, innocent, even. He appraised her body and her pretty Black skin. This would be his companion for the next five days.
At Melba’s request, he set the massage table on the balcony. She laughed as she sat on it, her small feet dangling as she kicked back and forth. She pointed to a bottle of champagne.
He filled two flutes to the brim.
They said cheers and clinked flutes as they stared at the darkening sky, at the black ocean that swallowed entire worlds. He remained standing.
The girls’ hair had been shaved and he wondered at that cruelty, even more than the bruises on their bodies. Why would anyone cut their hair?
“I went for a walk barefoot today, on the grass.” Melba motioned with an elegant hand toward the windows on the other side of the floor-wide suite, the ones that overlooked the garden into which an indoor waterfall crashed. “The grass is fake. Did you know that? The blades, they hurt my feet.”
He was quiet. He wanted to remind her the structure was man-made, inside a building like any other. She seemed to think they’d built the resort around a real waterfall. But he worried about disagreeing with her, about making her realize how stupid her statement was.
He’d held back when Federico and Pasofino lifted the girls off the boats, asking for help when they first reached shore. Someone had to hold them. There were other fishermen who received their bodies. Laura had waited for him, asking him to stand off to the side as the police did their work and hauled the bodies away.
“This is so horrible,” she’d said. “But we have to get back to work.”
“I need today off,” he’d said.
“But your first platinum client arrives today,” she’d said. “It’s up to you.”
Then she did a thing with her hands: This, or that. This, the girls being wheeled away, dead, or that, pointing to the resort, with the sound of the cascading water overpowering the ocean. He shook his head, feeling the bile rise up in his throat. That must have been a mistake. She couldn’t be that callous.
But it had worked.
In front of him, Melba spoke as if they knew each other. As if they’d done this before. He tried to place her face, to remember.
“I brought you something,” she said. With a girlish giggle, she jumped off, rushed into the apartment. Down on the beach, a bonfire. There, a soon-to-be-married couple posed for pictures. Up in the sky, so many stars. On his phone, a text.
We’re all at Mama Juana’s, Vida wrote. In case you want to come?
Pablo turned off his phone.
He sat down in one of the woven chaise lounges. His feet throbbed as soon as he took his weight off them. He focused on the throbbing. He imagined it was timed perfectly to the suckers opening and closing on that giant purple octopus. The rope around the girls’ arms and legs must have been attached to something heavy. How had the ropes come undone? Who had cut them? He tried to remember their faces. Did they look as if they’d suffered?
Melba rushed back to the balcony. On his lap, she placed a yellow netted bag, filled with gold-colored chocolate coins.
That’s when he remembered Melba. She’d ordered him halfway through her vacation several years ago, during her husband’s daily trip to the golf course. She said she’d discovered the affair with his best friend, the godfather of their oldest child, just that morning. Why did I look through his phone after twenty-five years of marriage, she’d asked. Then remained quiet until Pablo said something.
You did it because you don’t love him anymore, he’d told her. Her jaw fell open, and without another word, she’d reached into her purse, took an identical bag of chocolates out of it. I’m planning to get fat, she’d told him then.
She hadn’t gotten fat — but still, there was something different about her body. Melba squatted next to him. The silk robe came undone, and he stared at her beautiful fake breasts, understanding what had changed.
Before sunrise the next day, as Melba slept, Pablo would rise and sit on this same balcony. He would listen to the sounds of the ocean and dozens of workers, invisible in the impenetrable fog, raking the seaweed away. For a moment, before turning away toward Melba’s insistent voice calling for him, he would allow himself to sit with all he’d broken. He would be the first in many generations of family men who didn’t go out in the morning to fish.
But now he just kept going down, to the pubic hair that grew between Melba’s legs. He hadn’t seen a tourist who didn’t wax themselves clean. She followed his eyes, bit her lips at his expression. She ripped the netting of the chocolates in one go. She took one, unfoiled it, and slipped it between his lips. It melted slowly on his tongue. His mouth grew full with the taste of such softness, of sugar, of caramel.
About the Author
Cleyvis Natera is the author of the debut novel Neruda on the Park. She was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore College and a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from New York University. She’s received honors from PEN America, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA). Her fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Alien Nation: 36 True Tales of Immigration, TIME, Gagosian Quarterly, The Washington Post, The Kenyon Review, Aster(ix) and Kweli Journal, among other publications. Cleyvis teaches creative writing to undergraduate and graduate students in New York City. She lives with her husband and two young children in Montclair, New Jersey.
Written by Cleyvis Natera
Edited by Dawnie Walton
Performed by Alberto “Mojo” Peña
Illustrated by Bex Glendining
Music and sound design by Alexis Adimora
Audio Engineering: Deon Vozov (LA Voiceover)
Executive Producers: Dawnie Walton and Mark Armstrong
Distributed by Lit Hub Radio