We can call him Al. It was the name he used in Belize City. I wouldn't presume to improve on it. He was wearing acid-washed jeans and white tennis shoes, and looked to be in his early 50s. Paunchy in his polo shirt, he appeared on the balcony of the Seaside Guest House and let himself into a tiny single room hardly larger than a public restroom stall.
The day before, the guest house had teemed with the usual motley lot of backpackers and day trippers: a dreadlocked Austrian, a clean-scrubbed American Mormon, a Canadian fry cook from Florida, a pair of dusty, beautiful hippie women from the Netherlands. Now they were all gone, off to catch a bus to Guatemala, or water taxis to the Cayes. They had all appeared worldly and roadworthy, but Al I could picture back in the States, wearing slacks and a name tag, selling home appliances in a strip mall.
The others looked like they'd traveled here. Al looked like he'd been caught here.
Whoever christened it the Seaside Guest House was being optimistic. If the wind is right, you can smell the sea from the second floor, and should the palm leaves part to provide a sight line over the tin roofs and down the adjacent alley, you might spy a scintilla of Caribbean glint. But knock your Belikin bottle over the balcony railing and you'll ding a taxi, not a sunbather.
Just off the common area, at the head of the hall, is a bunk room crammed with six beds, one of which is mine. The bunk room and Al's room share a wall.
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Shortly after he entered his tiny room, Al came back out, descended the stairs, let himself out the gate to Prince Street and disappeared down the sidewalk.
It was quiet after Al left. I sat at a table in the common area, composing notes toward a story on Belizian firefighters. When the hot breeze blew, the palms rattled like rain. Across Prince Street, a little old man, his face a wizened pecan, sat under an orange Ovaltine cap on a chair in the sun. Now and then he spoke to a woman ironing in the shade of the great white house that dominated the garden. The woman was built like an oil drum, wrapped in a vast white apron that bulged from her gut like a sail full of wind. Their soft voices floated across Prince Street and up through the screen.
A local reporter arrived and drove me to a seaside club, where we sat at an open-air table overlooking the water, eating chips and salsa spiked with cilantro and chunks of raw conch. I noticed a man standing alone at the railing, hands in his pockets, faced into the wind. It was Al. At his back, disco lights swabbed the empty dance floor. The reporter and I left shortly. The floor had drawn a few dancers. Al was on the fringe, hanging back.
Back in the guest house at 12:30 a.m., I had the six-bunk dorm room to myself. I made a few notes in my journal, then settled in to sleep.
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I awaken some time later. Someone is fumbling with a door. Al has returned with a friend. A woman is giggling. The wall between us is made of gapped one-inch boards; a few hairline strips of light seep through with the sound. I hear the bunk creak, hear the woman's voice. Switching between Spanish and Creole, she sounds pleasantly, lazily drunk, her voice a slurring purr.
Al begins to petition her for specific favors. She giggles drunkenly, but remains firm on one point: "Condom, condom." He protests, quietly and urgently. She mentions a child and asks for more tequila. I hear her drink. Again, rather loudly this time, she insists that he produce a condom. He shushes her, but soon I hear the rattle of the wrapper. It becomes quiet. I hear weight shifting. Still no words. More sounds of movement.
There is trouble. He makes another request. She demurs -- "It will taste bitter." Again, he shushes her. Soon she is looping from coy to surly. She mumbles about suicide. Then she brightens, asks for the bathroom. Al points her down the hall and hides in his room while she pees noisily.
Then I can see her shadow under my door. She is drifting around the common area. A chair creaks and a newspaper crackles. It is quiet for a long time. Finally, Al stirs and creeps from his room. Then a harsh whisper: "What the hell are you doing?!?" After much cajoling and shushing, he maneuvers her back to his room. But now she wants to leave.
"This place is poison for me," she says.
She asks if she can take the newspaper.
"Stay, I will make love to you in the morning," says Al.
"You will have to wake me up."
"I can go to your place," says Al, ever hopeful.
"My place is not so clean as this." Then she laughs a bitter laugh.
"But I will be more relaxed there," says Al. The woman says nothing. Al speaks again. "Tomorrow I go to Caye Caulker. Meet me."
"Can I have cab fare?"
"No prob-lem-o." He shepherds her down the stairs and to the gate, shushing all the way. The gate clicks. I hear him return to his room. I hear the condom wrapper crackle, hear him cap the tequila. Then he pads down the hall to the bathroom.
My journal is on the floor beside my bunk. I've been taking notes in the dark. I press the light on my watch. It's 2:30 a.m. I'm a little guilty about the notes. But you find yourself looking through a dark window on two people driven by two very different sorts of desperation, and you think you ought to turn it into some sort of parable.
I'm on my moral high horse, disgusted by a man who, unable to use her, would turn a woman loose in Belize City at this hour, leaving her to weave through the ugly back streets to her sleeping baby. But the story is about the transactions we all make, about the hungers that drive us, furtive and craven, into dark places that we inhabit only to buy some time in the light. Worlds apart, Al and the woman were brought together by twinned -- not twin -- needs. This is a lonely world. Given cover of darkness, we drive straight to the things we disdain by day. We want them hidden, but more than that, we want them.
Al is still in the bathroom when she returns. She is banging at the gate.
"Al! Al! Al!" The mongrel dog who lies by the desk all day, soundless and unstirring as people come and go, begins barking wildly. Now she is ringing the doorbell. Downstairs, doors slam. Omar and the manager are cursing the woman and yelling at her to leave. She calls out for Al. His shadow slides past my door. I can sense him holding his breath as he lets himself out the main door and into his room, but she has spotted him.
"Al! Al!" The lock on his door clicks in place.
Now I hear the proprietor. "It's that fucking guy in room 1!" His voice moves to the foot of the stairs. "You brought her in here, buddy, now make her leave! Tell her to go home!" Al's room is still as a tomb.
Downstairs, the yelling and door-slamming continue. Omar cracks the gate and the woman wedges her foot in the jamb. Enraged, the proprietor grabs a machete and chases her down the street into the darkness. For a while it is quiet. Then the proprietor speaks from the foot of the stairs again.
"If you want a fucking whorehouse, go to a fucking whorehouse!"
And then it is quiet for good.
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Al was gone in the morning. I caught a ride north. I figured when I got back home, I'd write up the escapade as a farce. But it just didn't seem funny. I thought of him flying down here for hookers and snorkeling. And then I thought of me flying down here to fish for stories, a slumming voyeur armed with emergency traveler's checks and a plane ticket home.
Scribbling away in my bunk, scratching around the edge of this little story, I was doing some skulking of my own. Given a front row seat at the disintegration of one man's fantasy, I found myself reviewing my own closeted collection of indiscretions.
If they were brought to light, would I live differently, or just more defiantly?
Our passions debase us. Our needs make fools of us all.