Javier closed up the kitchen for the night and came out of the mess area onto the deck for a final cigarette. He saw the young woman sitting quietly on the metal scuba grill attached to the stern, her bare legs dangling in the water. She glanced over her shoulder, then pretended not to notice him and went back to watching the dark water rising and falling against her white skin.
Javier propped himself against the closed door and struck a match, the sudden orange flame lighting the dark stern like an emergency flare. He exhaled his first drag heavily, making no secret of being there, making no secret of the fact that he wasn’t approaching her. It was like this sometimes with the women who came on these trips; they were looking for a caballero to match their vision of romantic nights under the warm Mexican skies. Javier thought it was the rocking of the boat that put this idea in their heads.
This one didn’t interest him so much. He looked at the halter top tied around the rounded shoulders as he smoked, the way the knobs of her spine disappeared into the waistline of her shorts. He said nothing, waiting as his lack of conversation solidified between them. He smoked his cigarette down to the filter, then flicked it over the side of the boat.
“Hammerheads in these waters,” he said, then left for his bunk, listening to the sudden splash of her legs withdrawing from the sea.
The ride out of Bahiá de La Paz was rough because of the storm out at sea a day earlier. The chop was still high as they cleared the harbor, but the captain was a precise man who knew what his clients paid for, and it wasn’t getting stuck in La Paz.
Javier scanned the overcast sky and eyeballed the man-sized waves. There’d be no whales today, he thought. But the naturalist would do a slide show, and Javier would cook a gourmet lunch, and no one would complain.
He hoisted himself up to sit on the railing, hooking his bare feet into one of the lower rails to help maintain his balance as the boat pitched up and down the waves. He kept one hand lightly on the post next to him and looked back toward the town where, on the waterfront, the fronds of the coconut and date palms waved in the wind like hula girls’ arms.
He wished he’d had a longer break before this new group had come onboard, or if he hadn’t, that this had been a fishing trip instead. He liked the casual masculinity of the deep sea fishing trips better than the touchy-feely whale trips. The conversation was unbounded and beer was the most important food he served. They chased marlin and shark, and usually pulled yellowtail and wahoo instead, and sometimes someone would land an enormous grouper that the captain would measure outloud against the record book to make the fisherman feel good, and they would all clap him heroically on the back, because landing a big fish was about as close to being a warrior as most men got in their lives.
A wave broke hard against the side of the boat. The cold spray felt like a rain of tacks against his skin and he grimaced. The door to the mess crashed opened suddenly as the boat rolled sideways. The girl who’d lost hold of it smiled and mouthed the word oops at him apologetically as she stepped through and grappled it closed behind her.
She went to the stern and stood there watching the receding Paseo Alvaro Obregón, her knees dipping slightly as the boat climbed a ten foot wave and then crested and slid down the face at an angle.
“It’ll be calmer out in the gulf,” he told her.
She turned to him, blinking at the spray that flew into her face, but with an exuberant grin. “No, it’s great!” She passed a hand over her head to keep her hair from lashing her eyes. She leaned over the railing to look at the water.
Now, in the day light, he estimated she was in her early twenties. Her t-shirt billowed and flattened against her body in the wind, and when it puffed wide he saw it read “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” She wore new tennis shoes and socks that shone hard white in the blue air of the former storm.
Watching how the girl was enjoying herself so immensely in the pitching stern, he thought to himself that maybe it would be an easy trip. It was only a small group this time, just the girl and her parents and another couple, elderly travel-writer types, and it was only ten days before they put into Cabo San Lucas again.
A rogue wave crashed over the side of the rails and swept the deck like an irate child clearing a game board with one swipe. The sluice of water knocked the legs out from under the girl and she went down in the rush, sliding across the tipping deck and washing toward the railing at Javier’s feet. Automatically, he reached down to grab for her.
The boat righted and she let him help her up, sputtering and embarrassed. The drenched t-shirt sucked and clung to her skin. She looked down at herself, and forced a sheepish laugh. “I’d better go change.”
“Give me your wet clothes,” Javier told her. “We have a dryer on board.”
After she was gone, he hoisted himself back up on the railing and leaned back to look for the harbor mouth. There was no way that she could have actually washed overboard; the railing would have stopped her. But Javier had seen her face as the wave had swept her towards the edge. Buried in the froth and turmoil of the water, she had appeared to be drowning, reaching out in panic for the air she knew she’d never breathe again.
Interesting, Javier thought. She’d never made a sound.
That night, with the boat secured in a tiny harbor, he found her on the top deck, her head tilted back to look at the stars. The water lapped gently at the sides of the boat, and the sway of the sea was a lullaby.
“I brought you these,” Javier said, indicating the pair of socks in his hand. He’d seen how she had started to go barefoot around the boat like he and the other two crew members did. The girl didn’t start at the sound of his voice, and he liked her because of it.
“ I’m alright, thanks.” She acknowledged the offer pleasantly, but made no move to take them from him. He saw how she had drawn her knees up to her chest in the chair. He approached her, holding out the socks. They looked at each other over his outstretched fist. When the girl relented, something that had grown tight in Javier’s chest loosened again. He backed away to lean against the railing where he could watch her as she unfolded herself and drew on the socks.
When she was done, she raised her arms above her head in a lazy yawn, arching over the back of the chair. She gave Javier a contented little smile. He smiled back, as though they were complicit in some secret experience.
“You’re not Mexican,” she said.
He shook his head, and reached for the cigarettes in the back pocket of his shorts. He knew his lines from a thousand other trips, and delivered them with the world-weary ease of a once famous actor condemned to doing dinner theatre.
“My mother was Honduran and my father German. I grew up in Biloxi.” He paused and waited for her to say her next line. When she didn’t, he asked, “Warmer?”
She nodded, wide-eyed and ironic, as if she were only saying yes to pacify his ego. He sensed her amusement. Suddenly uncomfortable, he put a cigarette in his mouth to stop himself from answering questions she hadn’t asked.
“Beautiful spot,” the girl said, nodding at the harbor where the shore was a dark smudge anchoring the sky to the earth. Javier tucked the extinguished match back into the box from which it had come.
“Where will we go tomorrow?” she asked.
“North. Past Santa Rosalia and up to San Felipe, then south again.”
“And the whales?”
Javier shrugged. “Could be anywhere. All kinds winter here. Humpbacks, pilots, greys, sperms. Last trip, we saw some blue whales. They’re about three times the size of the boat.”
“What a life.”
This time he waited and blew smoke into the dark. He’d known this kind of girl before, all exclamations marks, fidgety with life.
“The captain told my parents you were a chef for the Ritz in New York.”
This was not what he had expected, and he found himself taking a moment to readjust his reply. “I trained in Switzerland, then worked my way across Europe, back to the States.”
“You speak French or German?”
“Both, and Spanish, some Italian. Een-gleesh.” He let the word click over his tongue, and she smiled at his joke. The girl had twisted on the fiberglass bench to face him but she had not made room for him to sit next to her. Javier didn’t mind; for now, he preferred to stand so she could consider him.
“And after Europe, you thought Mexico was the place to be.”
“My wife is Mexican,” he said and watched for the expected change in her expression.
The girl nodded, pursing her lips as though it all fit together, but other than that there was no indication that she was disappointed. She maintained eye-contact with him in a friendly, unperturbed way. He realized uneasily that she was sure he was hitting on her. The boat rolled slightly in the water and shifted beneath them.
There was the sound of heavy feet on the metal ladder from the main deck below. The naturalist poked his head up over the deck. “We’re going to start the slides,” he told the girl.
“Okay,” she replied. He disappeared again down the ladder.
Javier had used the interruption to his advantage, and when she returned her attention to him, he was sure there was nothing to be read from him now.
She rolled the socks off of her feet, held each one by the toe and snapped it fully extended again. She folded the cuff of one over the top of the other and slid them across the bench towards Javier.
“Thank you for these,” she said, rising. “See you in the morning.” In her bare feet, she crossed the upper deck and climbed down the ladder.
Sitting on the bench, Javier picked up the socks and laid them, still warm, over his knee where he stroked them thoughtfully, finishing his cigarette and watching the Pleides turn in the sky.
She kept him company in the tiny galley adjoining the main cabin that also served as a meeting room, dining room, and study for the guests. Sometimes he’d think she was admiring him as he expertly chopped vegetables, then he would look up to see she wasn’t watching him at all, that she was retying her bathing suit straps, or examining one of the latches ship galleys had to keep things from flying loose. He would watch her lips move minisculely as she silently sounded out the Spanish words on a bottle label to herself and when she looked up it would be he who was watching her instead. Such moments made him feel he’d lost control somehow.
And yet the fact that she sought him out when she could have been up on the deck tanning, or watching the sea with binoculars, made him think that she was not as disinterested as she pretended. He’d risked it finally, reaching out to sweep a honey-brown strand of hair back behind her shoulder as she’d stood next to him at the counter, letting the tips of his fingers brush the side of her neck. She gave no physical sign of having noticed, but she asked almost immediately about his children, and so he knew he was right. He withdrew his hand and pressed his hips hard against the counter to hide his excitement.
In Santa Rosalía, she volunteered to accompany him to re-provision the galley. On the way to the market, they passed fences covered in colorful tangles of bugambilias and he told her about the copper mining history of the town and pointed out the church which Gustav Eiffel had designed. She walked next to him quietly, listening, and did not let herself cross the invisible boundary she’d set between them. For the first time in his thirty-seven years, he did not know whether a woman was waiting for him to act, or would not welcome it if he did. In the market, he watched her handling the mangoes and paw-paws, and later in the sweltering day, they sat at a picnic table on the plaza and he showed her how to cut the peel from a pineapple in one continuous strip.
She was irreverent about their flirtation. She brushed away any attempt he made for an opening with a gay laugh, a light-hearted roll of her brown eyes, a silly face. She annoyed him when she refused to take him seriously. She refused to take herself with him seriously, and this irritated him even more.
As punishment, he decided to ignore her. She shuffled, puffy-eyed, into the dining room that morning, took a coffee mug from the table where they were laid out for the guests, filled it, then went out into the bright sunlight on the stern without even bothering to smile at him.
“Eres peor que un dolor de muelas,” he muttered, swiping at the counter with his rag as the door clicked shut behind her.
After the noon meal, he took his turn at the watch. There wasn’t much to do since the boat was equipped with GPS and sonar equipment. He settled into the padded captain’s chair and rested his bare feet against the large metal steering wheel. Holding his coffee mug between his knees, he looked out at the Sea of Cortez stretching before him.
On the upper deck, he heard the naturalist call out that there were whales on the port side. Javier inclined his head a little to look out the windows on that side and saw several fans of spray catch rainbows of sunlight as the humpbacks surfaced. He reached over and opened one of the windows, listening for the hydraulic blow of the whales. On the upper deck there were excited exclamations.
Javier took a sip from his mug and wondered if the girl was on the deck with the others, then stopped himself from wondering about her at all. He shifted in the seat. The sound of his bare skin coming away from the plastic reminded him of the sound of a wet-suit being peeled away after a dive.
In the drowsy air of the midday, the sound of the whales clearing their blowholes carried over the water. The dusty orb of the sun beat down and turned the tips of the crenellated waves to flashing mirrors. It played tricks on unaccustomed eyes, sometimes looking like other boats, or even the oil rigs that his father had worked on in the Gulf of Mexico. Javier picked at the dried skin on his bottom lip and thought about his father.
He had been working for Shell Oil then, supervising the laying of a new pipeline on the Gulf floor. Javier’s father and his crew had been out for several weeks on the miserable job. Laying pipe in the Gulf was a dangerous and difficult job. The waters of the Gulf were so muddy and murky that everything had to be done by feeling alone. The pipes being laid were big bastards, hard to handle on the rig and tricky even once they were in the water. The men his father supervised were old hands, burly and rough, but they knew their business, and Javier had heard his father remark more than once that he’d have given four pansy Mississippi gentlemen for one of his redneck crew in a pinch.
One of the men on the crew was a Cajun named Alsace Robespierre whose father had worked the rigs before him and whose grandfather had worked the Gulf as a fisherman. Robespierre was a big, barrel-chested man, with an arm span wide enough to reach halfway around those pipe sections. He was the best diver on the crew, and there were admiring stories told of how Robespierre could cradle a big pipe section, guide it by feeling into its mate, lock it all down, and unhook it from its wire, all without seeing, in less than five minutes per piece of pipe. Mostly, though, Robespierre was a good diver because of his coolness in emergencies. He’d once got tangled in a net being played out on his grandfather’s fishing vessel and dragged overboard. Another man would have panicked and drowned, but Robespierre kept his head and cut himself free from the tangle with his fish-gutting knife, following the buoyed line hand over hand to the surface.
So it was a puzzle to Javier’s father and the crew when Robespierre came to the surface one day before his shift was up, hauled himself up on deck, dropped his weight belt with a powerful clunk, and retired to his bunk where he turned his face to the wall and refused to talk to anyone for twelve hours. By the time he rose again, the hair at his temples had gone gray. It had taken Javier’s father another day to get the story from him, and what Robespierre finally told him was that he had lifted one of the pipe sections and was moving it into place when it swam away from him. Javier and his father had spent much of their time on that visit home speculating on what kind of fish it might have been that had drained the color from Robespierre’s head.
Feet appeared in the window in front of Javier. The heels were smooth and uncallused and the Achilles tendon stretched up in a graceful line to the firm flesh of the calves. He watched as she lowered herself onto his deck in front of the windscreen. In the window, only her legs and hips could be seen; the rest of her body remained above the top edge of the screen. The feet stayed where they landed, turning neither left nor right, but facing straight ahead, as though to purposefully block his view. Then she dropped to a crouch, twisted, and put her suntanned face against the window with her fingers cupped around her eyes so she could see inside. Spotting him there, she waved at him cheerfully and rose again. He followed the leg’s progress in the windows as they walked around the side and disappeared.
Javier set his jaw and turned back to the watch. He wondered if he was going to have grey hairs when this trip was over.
The boat was quiet. Everyone had gone to their cabins except for Javier and the girl. She sat on the edge of the deck, her feet barely touching the metal scuba grid at sea level. When the boat rocked, the soles of her feet got wet as water came through the grill.
He didn’t know if she was there as an invitation or not. He uncapped two bottles of beer and brought them out. She seemed absorbed, but made room for him when he joined her. He put the bottle next to her. They drank and watched the dark water where an occasional fluorescent squid darted by, and didn’t speak for a long time.
Finally, the girl sighed. Javier felt this was a cue.
In his bunk later, Javier realized that it was he who had done all the talking. Each of her sighs had seemed like another question to him, and he had answered them all, telling her about the fast life he’d led in Europe, about the differences between women of different nationalities, about how his children had been the answer to all the questions he’d had. She had looked at him doubtfully, whether because she didn’t believe him, or because she was not yet in a position to appreciate the truthfulness of his answers, he didn’t know. When they separated to go to their cabins, the stars were in noticeably different places in the sky than when they’d started talking. And still he had not felt able to touch her.
He grew angry with himself for revealing so much, but he fell asleep still pondering the only remark about herself that he could remember her making.
“I’m terrified of sharks.”
They anchored the next day at the Coronado Islands where the sea lions gathered to play. The captain stood among the guests on the stern, trying to make himself heard over the coughs and grunts of the colony. He cautioned everyone that they should not approach the bull who sat on the beach keeping watch over the females, and that if he should slip into the water, they should return to the boat as a precaution.
Javier watched the girl as the captain spoke, but she seemed not to be paying attention. She stared pensively over the side where the sea lions waved flippers at them as they slid past the boat. The sight of her colorful bikini top and bare torso underneath the black neoprene of her unzipped wet suit was startling. He himself wore only a pair of trunks, being accustomed to the sea temperatures.
One by one, the clients jumped overboard, holding their dive masks against their faces. Miguel, the other deckhand, bent at the waist and let gravity take him into the water with barely a splash. The captain lit a cigar and went back to his charts.
Still, the girl stood considering the sea. Javier moved to stand next to her. She gave him a look, stricken and embarrassed at the same time, then slowly, determined, she zipped her wet suit, and stepped down onto the grill with her mask in her hand. Javier followed her.
When the girl made no further move, Javier told her, “There are no sharks here. It’s fine.” Again she gave him a stricken look as if to say that if phobias were logical they wouldn’t be phobias.
Tony, the captain’s son and first mate, joined them on the platform.
“C’mon, I’ll hold your hand and we’ll jump together. Right?” he said to the hesitating girl. He was jovial and confident, and though the blood had drained from her brown face, she gave him a firm nod. She put the mask on her face and took a deep breath. But when she reached out, it was for both of their hands.
Javier held on tightly as they stepped off, all three of them, in one tremendous splash. They gave a few kicks of their feet and moved away from the boat and into the swirling, turning, diving sea lions, with the girl still gripping their hands. After a few minutes, she let go, hovering on the surface and watching the animals beneath her.
Javier swam a bit, then returned to the boat. He toweled his hair dry and looked for her floating figure in the water. A baby sea lion was approaching her at torpedo pace. The girl jerked her face from the water with a gasp as if she thought the little creature was going to plow into her, but it dove under her with only inches to spare, and Javier laughed at this trick. He was surprised to feel a kind of pride when this momentary fright didn’t send the girl fleeing for the safety of the boat.
He lit a cigarette, eyeing the old scarred bull on the rocky beach a hundred yards away. The bull grunted and barked at the others, and then struck a pose with its head suddenly raised to the sky as though it thought to balance the sun on its nose. Javier, too, turned his face to the sun and let it dry him. He decided he would not tell the girl about the hammerhead colony that mated on the opposite side of the island.
Javier knew the guests would be hungry after the morning’s excitement. When he opened the door to the galley, though, he found the girl engrossed in a book, her legs curled comfortably under her. She glanced up.
“Have you looked outside?” he asked.
She shook her head, closed the book over her hand to mark her place, and rose to her knees to look out the window behind the couch.
“They’ve been traveling with us for the last hour.”
Three sperm whales were directly off the port side, close enough that the fine mist of their blowing could be seen. The massive bull, easily twice the length of the boat, was flanked by two smaller females. The dark, solid bulk of their bodies in the giving water was a shock to observe. Like the disbelief of watching the huge metal bulk of an airliner lift off into air.
The boat plowed through the waves at a smart clip, the engine a steady rumbling more felt than heard. The whales kept pace easily. The easy sweep of their tails and disinclination to sound gave the impression that they were merely indulging a slow, noisy cousin.
Javier came over to stand at the window. The bull had white scars etch into the broad dome of his head. There was a weird disturbance in the water next to one of the females as she swam, but it was a number of minutes before the girl identified it as a piece of fishing net.
“Oh!” she exclaimed.
“Probably got hooked in her jaw as she was feeding.”
They watched the drag and pull of the net in the water. Javier wondered if this was why the whales were traveling on the surface. The fraying blue nylon rope popped and skittered over the surface and then was dragged under again, but the female never faltered. Javier thought it was distressing to look at, but wouldn’t interfere with her feeding.
He checked the girl. Her eyes were sad, haunted. He wanted to take her hand, to console her. He could see the fine blond hairs on her arm. He wanted to lick them flat. He wanted to crush her in his arms, kiss her, make her forget, make her remember him. He wanted to pull the round collar of her t-shirt away from her neck and suck the salt from her collarbone. He wanted to suck the breath from her, yes, that. Why should she be so sad about a whale? He wanted to slide his fingers into elastic of her bathing suit and snap it against her skin. He wanted to feel the rise of the place where her thighs became her ass. He wanted to turn her over and over under him, to blot out the outside things so that all she could see, feel, know was him, over her, above her, protecting her. To make her stop looking out the window with this old, desiccated sadness that made her cheeks flush and her eyes drowning pools.
He thought, now I will take this. I will take this from her, and give her something else in return. He started to reach for her, his hand nearly on the back of her waist, when she looked at him fully in the face.
It was not sadness at all. It was anger that colored her cheeks. And her eyes were sad, yes, but fortressed in tense skin and orbital bone, barbed with sharp lashes, pointed and knowing, yes, knowing whose fault this was, and why did he feel suddenly that it was his fault? She was a girl, and he was a man, and there was a whale with a rope, and she was sad, and he was strong, and they stood facing each other across a knowing, old as the ocean was deep. Javier let his hand fall.
The girl delivered another of her cryptic remarks. “We are hateful.”
He sauteed onions and diced carrots, and caught himself calculating ways he could be alone with her before the trip was over. He did a thing he had not done in many years; he sliced the tip of his finger by mistake, carelessly, absently.
He put the finger in his mouth and sucked at the sharp sting. With his other hand, Javier opened a cabinet, and took down the first aid kit, rummaging through it for a gauze pad and sterile tape. Cabo in two days. This was a thought he would not consider now.
He moved to the sink and put his hand under the tap. There was satisfaction at the glancing pain of the water running over the cut. He held his finger up. It was bleeding fast, and the blood and water mixed and ran down his wrist leaving dewy pink comet trails behind. He put the finger back in his mouth again.
He sucked with tiny rhythmic pulses and stared out the window, thinking about the copper soil taste of his blood. She would come in now and gasp at his injury and murmur at his carelessness. She would lead him to one of the seats at the table, but he would lean on the table edge instead, and she would pull the chair out and sit in it so that she could clean the cut in the finger he held out for her to inspect. She would be careful not to wrap it too tightly and he would not wince at the antiseptic she applied generously to the wound.
Javier realized he was pressing the cut hard against his teeth. The boat was rocking more heavily, and he swayed as he took his finger from his mouth. The cut throbbed as he held it up to the light again to inspect it.
“Ouch,” the girl said, seeing the blood, and he turned to face her, expectantly, now that she was there. She scrutinized the hand he held stretched out toward her, the crimson beading and the wet palm glistening. “Use lots of iodine on that.” She turned to go. “Let me know if you need help with dinner.”
They sailed past Loreto on their way south to Cabo San Lucus and because the fishing was always good in this area, Javier threw in a couple of lines, letting them trawl behind in the wake of the boat. Eventually the girl appeared, and he saw from her face that she was bored, and wondered if she had always sought him out because she was bored. He baited a hook, whistling through his teeth in mild disgust, not understanding why she refused do the thing that would relieve her boredom.
He handed her the fishing rod, and for once, she took something he offered her without comment. She held it awkwardly, slightly away from her body and upright. She wore cut-off denim shorts with frayed edges over her one-piece bathing suit, and her skin had gone paper-bag brown in the days of sun.
“Like this,” he said, and took up the other rod to show her how to let the tip lie low over the railing, get the measure of the natural drag on the line and keep the pole lightly grasped to feel a strike from a fish in your fingers. She imitated his wide stance and easy grip, and gave him a sudden, startling grin. Javier looked away, realizing that she was mocking what she thought was a distinctly masculine pose.
On the starboard side, the Sierra de la Giganta mountains were a spiny ridge down the center of the desert peninsula. In the heat of the midday, the mountains gleamed like bleached bones. Silently, Javier named the islands they sailed past: Isla Carmen, the Danzantes, Catalina. After the islands, he named beaches along the coast: Santispac, El Burro, Los Cocos, El Requéson, and when he was done with that, he recited the names of the fish in the waters: yellowtail, bonita, sailfish, dorado, cabrilla, Jack Crevalle, wahoo, roosterfish, and all the time he watched his line and the girl out of the corner of his eye and did not speak. He tipped his face to the yellow sun and felt the warm breeze ruffle the hairs on his legs.
When he heard the mild exclamation of the girl next to him, he lowered his face again and leaned down to ram the handle of his fishing rod into its anchor at his feet. He placed his crossed arms on the top rail and waited.
He saw the rod slip in her grasp at the same time that the tip of the pole did a sudden gymnastic curl towards the water.
“Hang on to it,” he told her, and followed the fishing line with his eye to where it disappeared into the churning wake to see what kind of fish she’d hooked. The rod jumped again, but she clamped her hands around it this time with a small grunt of determination. He reached over and lay his fingers lightly on the line, waiting. When the jerk came again, he took his hand back and resumed his leaning pose against the rail. He thought this was not a big fish on the line, though there was always the possibility that a marlin was playing with her and had not yet really struggled.
“Pull the tip of the rod up to the sky and then drop it quickly and reel in the loose line,” he directed. She did as he told her, and he saw how she strained against the water and fish, the muscles in her arms becoming defined, her jaw clenching with the effort. Javier edged a step closer along the railing, just in case he needed to grab for the rod or, in the case of a really big fish, for the girl, but otherwise made no move to help.
She pulled and reeled the excess fishing line, and pulled again, and eventually small beads of sweat blossomed on her forehead and he could see the glistening sheen of perspiration under her arms. Once, as she strained to lift the tip of the rod, she gave him a pleading look, but he only leaned out over the rail to look down for the fish.
He had thought that he would stand behind her, that he would let his arms lay along the length of hers and his hands cover hers on the rod handle. He had imagined he would loan his strength to her, that she would lean back against him, her hips tucked against his, the mirage heat locked between them. He had thought about it, but now he was not surprised to observe himself do nothing but lean out and look for the fish.
He spotted it finally, a flashing green wahoo, a few pounds at most. The girl was tiring. Her hair was plastered to her forehead and she blinked away the sweat that posed on her brown eyelashes. He left the rail to take the fishing net off the wall behind them. He stood by her now, coaching her through the final part, and when the wahoo was lifted clear of the water, he reached out for the fishing line with one hand and scooped the struggling fish into the net with the other.
The girl stood back panting, with the handle of the rod resting on the deck now, and watched Javier lift the wahoo out of the net by the line so she could look at it. Its scales flashed green and yellow and deep sea blue as it twisted in the sun. Its gills flapped open and shut desperately, but she didn’t turn away from its dying convulsions. Javier had seen this happen before too, when natural squeamishness and pity was overcome by the hard calculating assessment of an enemy that one had just spent long minutes vanquishing.
“How big do you think it is?” she asked, squinting at the fish, and Javier heard in her voice that, to her, the wahoo was enormous, a hundred pounds rather than the two he estimated that he now held on the line. He laughed out loud.
He cut the fish from the line and gutted it there on the deck while the girl wiped the sweat from her face. He served fresh sashimi that night as an appetizer, and noted with satisfaction that she helped herself from the platter at least twice.
It was traditional the final night of the trip to eat dinner on shore in a little cantina that served authentic pollo mole. The crew and guests ate this meal together, with the captain sitting at the head of the table. Javier sat across the table from the girl. Tonight the guests slept in a hotel, and Javier knew that the girl and her parents were sharing one room, and that whatever opportunity had existed was now past. He felt a kind of stinging amazement.
There was music in the cantina, three strolling guitarists who performed rousing tunes that made you want to get on the table and stomp your feet, and they came to the table now and yipped and andale-d as their strumming wrists whipped back and forth manically, their fingers moving over the strings too fast to keep track of.
There was a boisterous yell from the waiters who appeared carrying bottles of tequila, and poured shots. They slammed them first on the table, then pulled back the heads of the tourists as though they were going to slit their throats and poured the fiery alcohol into their mouths.
The girl was enjoying this show, and when a skinny, Latin-eyed boy stepped behind her, cupping a hand under her chin to raise her head gently, she didn’t resist. Javier watched the muscles in her throat as she swallowed. The waiter patted her on the head approvingly and moved on, and the girl lowered her head and smiled brilliantly at Javier across the table.
Midway through the meal, the waiters came around a second time, and before anyone could protest, had poured a second round down their throats. With the beer and wine, everyone at the table was starting to get tipsy. The music was whirling around them, and Javier watched the girl take in everything and thought about the wahoo dangling on the line.
Through the window, he could see the ochre Mexican moon hanging in the sky. Inside, the girl’s fingers tapped the top of the wooden table, keeping time to the manic beat of the music. Sharp bursts of drunken laughter punctuated the songs. The waiters came around a third time, but the girl slipped her palm over the top of her shot glass and shook her head, mouthing “no mas.”
Javier raised his finger and indicated that he would take the girl’s portion for himself. The waiter stomped his approval, leaning over the table to pour the shot for Javier, and the girl watched with shining eyes as Javier lifted the glass to her in salute and swallowed his tequila, gritting his teeth against the burn.