In the Palace of Cortés by Clifford Garstang

Nick is sitting outside at the Café Hidalgo, sipping his Corona, contemplating an upgrade to tequila, when Alexis finally arrives, breathless. He left her at the hotel, and he’s been waiting. She begged to come with him, cried in big wheezing sobs that she didn’t want to be alone, but he wouldn’t hear of it unless she changed clothes. Now she’s wearing the cream-colored blouse he laid out for her, the peach shorts. Not as comfortable, maybe, as the jeans and t-shirt, but better, more elegant, like a rich dessert.

It’s a bright, warm day in Cuernavaca, probably zero at home in Chicago. He’s wearing dark glasses. At the edge of the Plaza de Armas, just a hundred feet behind Alexis, is an enormous flowering tree, the likes of which Nick has never seen. It’s yellow. Too yellow. It doesn’t look real.

“There’s some kind of festival,” Alexis says. “The streets are impossible in this country.” She’s recovered from her tears, eyes clear, no makeup streaks. He suspects her resilience is inherited from her parents, farmers he’s thus far avoided meeting.

Nick glares at her over his lowered sunglasses, in the silent way his own parents rebuked him when he was growing up on Long Island. Both psychologists, they never needed to yell. Not at him, not at each other, not even when they divorced.

Alexis turns away. She wanted to spend New Years in Hawaii, or anywhere with a beach. He’s always liked Maui, understood why it was her idea of paradise, but instead chose the rugged mountains of Mexico.

“I’m just saying,” she mutters.

He does hear horns blaring in the distance, trumpets and taxis both, and admits the possibility that she’s telling the truth about the traffic. The opposite is equally possible, but he’s never known Alexis to lie. It takes a sharp mind to pull off a good lie. She still believes that he went to New York in November to run the marathon, and that he had a brother who killed himself in high school. He lies to her every week. For practice.

“What kind of tree is that?” Nick points with his chin, and Alexis turns to look.

“Yellow,” she says. There’s no irony in her voice. There couldn’t be. Nor does she have the wit for sarcasm.

“That’s what I thought,” says Nick. “But I needed to hear it from you to be sure.”

She sticks her tongue out at him. He’s surprised by this. It’s an ugly gesture, one that implies comprehension and courage, but Alexis turns it into a glamorous pose, so maybe not. She’s a model. Thin, but not too thin. Long, lustrous hair. Nick runs an ad agency in Chicago and they met on a lingerie catalog shoot. He hired her for a newspaper spread, then a commercial, eventually becoming her de facto manager, deciding which jobs were good for her, which she should turn down. They’ve been living together for six months.

She orders tequila.

“Do you think you should?” he asks. It’s partly concern for her weight. She’s doing a swimsuit ad when they get back to Chicago.

“We’re on vacation, Nicky. Lighten up!”

But the main reason he objects is that tequila is what he really wants but now can’t have. He won’t follow her lead. She might get the wrong idea.

Instead of tequila, he asks for another Corona and gazes again at the beautiful tree. He wonders if it’s indigenous to Mexico, or if the Spaniards brought it. He can’t recall anything comparable in Asia or Africa. He used a Jacaranda background on a shoot in Thailand once, but those blossoms were lavender, pale and quiet. This yellow shouts.

Cuernavaca was also his choice. After he vetoed Hawaii and bought tickets for Mexico, Alexis studied the guidebook and said she wanted to see Oaxaca. Nick enjoyed an ancient ruin as much as anyone, and he wasn’t particularly worried about getting in the middle of the local politics he’d heard about. But how was she ever going to learn if she got what she wanted? He knew what was best. He made the decisions. There wasn’t time for long bus rides or tramping around pyramids in Oaxaca, he explained. Their arguments even at home, like this one, were calm, often taking place in bed at the end of a busy day, and followed a pattern. She would protest meekly, he’d go on the offensive, and she’d surrender. Cuernavaca was closer, he decreed, there were museums and ruins both, on a clear day you could see the volcano, and that’s where they would go. She opened her mouth to reply, and he, aroused by his own authority over her, closed it with a kiss.

“What’s that building?” Alexis points at the colonial behemoth across the street from the café.

Nick thumbs to the Cuernavaca page he’s dog-eared in his Lonely Planet guide and intones, “‘Cortés’ imposing medieval-style fortress stands opposite the southeast end of the Plaza de Armas. Construction of this two-storey stone fortress-style palace was accomplished between 1522 and 1532’ and yadda, yadda.” He closes the book. “Part fort, part palace, part museum.” The palace is indeed imposing, with its stone parapet and corner turrets. The clock on the north tower has been stuck at 12:39 since Nick entered the cafe, perhaps since the revolution.

Alexis downs her tequila and, with a sidelong glance at Nick, stands.  “Coming?”

Nick gazes at her and wonders what he has done to give her the impression that she has any say in the matter. She doesn’t behave this way in Chicago. When they go out to eat, usually at a bistro he likes in Lakeview, she watches his eyes for the sign that he’s ready to leave. He remains seated.

“To the fort,” she says, waving at the Palacio, too impatiently for Nick’s taste.

“Tell you what,” Nick says, “I’m going to skip this one.” Nick is already thinking of the argument they will have that evening in bed, how she’ll bend to his will, and his arousal is almost painful.

Alexis should be panicked at the prospect of going off on her own. He expects her to sit, maybe order another drink. Instead, she glares at him, hands on hips—glaring is new behavior, too—before ripping out of the café.

Nick finishes his beer and orders the tequila he wanted all along. Although he is amused by her anger and the lovemaking it portends, the chafing Alexis has begun to display worries him. It’s possible that he has gone too far. He could be a bit more flexible. He could, perhaps, allow her to choose her own clothes. It’s a minor thing. She has fashion sense, after all. What harm would it do to give her this one freedom? Or maybe he should take the opposite tack. Rein her in further. Maybe confine her to the room for a day. In any case, he’ll find a way to pacify her tonight, and wonders how cheaply a truce can be bought. Just outside the café, under the yellow tree, is a pear-shaped woman with long, black braids hawking garish placemats and baskets. Next to her, a boy grasps a bouquet of inflated Mylar balloons in various shapes, and Nick has his eye on the yellow happy face. It matches the tree.






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Clifford Garstang



© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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