Ellen was surprised by the rain in the Costa del Sol and the timid look of the Hotel Continental. She arrived in Mojacar and the hotel at dusk, hours later than planned. No one was at the registration desk, and no guests were in sight, yet she felt conspicuous ringing the bell. The sense of being exposed had been with her the entire trip, and she wondered if people could tell she’d been masquerading as a seasoned traveler. She rang the bell again, and an elderly man appeared, his blue suit silvered with age. He treated her curtly, as if the sight of a lone middle-aged woman, surely one without much money, was as disappointing as the uncharacteristic weather.
She was sixty. She’d taught fifth grade in Vermont for thirty years, and often talked about her fear of retiring. When she announced her retirement and trip to Spain, colleagues congratulated her, as if she’d overcome a vice, but she’d traveled to spite her unreliable lover, Kay.
She studied the Mojacar guidebook in her room, the pictures showing a faultless sky and a quaint village perched on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. From her balcony window, she saw drenched palm trees, lurching boats, and a purple sunset being drawn, like a scarf, through a ring of clouds.
She was the only patron in the small dining room. The waiter looked at his watch, as she struggled to explain what she wanted. She heard grumbling in the kitchen, and knew she’d been guilty of some misunderstanding. Had she been too early? Too late?
Despite the fog the next morning, she decided to explore the village at the top of the hill, but she couldn’t see the village, or even a few feet ahead. The sound of bells, bleats, and hooves clacking on rocks startled her, and then through the mist, goats emerged, and an old woman, dressed in black, followed, the fog closing behind her.
Ellen returned to her room, wondering how people would react to her decision to return to Vermont so soon. “An emergency,” she’d say. “A dear friend’s illness.” A voluptuous sensation thrilled through her, and then dread. Kay had backed out of the trip, and seemed determined to end everything. Ellen didn’t tell anyone about it, but went over the events, the same way she did for her students in history lessons, always stressing that the real story lay behind the scenes, in the complicated motives and actions of people who had much to gain and lose.
Kay had had an awakening. It was one of the first things she told Ellen four years ago at a restaurant after a women’s book club meeting—that higher powers were urging her to change her life. Kay had looked radiant as she described her former life. She’d experimented with drugs, had many affairs, and a disastrous marriage. Ellen expected Kay to describe a childhood trauma, but Kay surprised her by saying, “I figured out that the scariest thing imaginable is what we do to ourselves and each other. My ex would be shocked to know that I’m grateful to him for helping me see the light. He was so much like me, it scared the hell out of me.”
Ellen confessed what she’d done after a breakup six years ago, sneaking into her lover’s backyard, unleashing the dog, and watching the dog take off. “I hoped Frances would call. I even saw myself coming to the rescue, but Frances never called.”
She’d told the story to colleagues, and kept the lover’s gender vague, knowing they’d assume Frances was a man, but she told Kay the truth.
Kay shrugged. “I knew it was a woman. And you know what? My old self would’ve poisoned that dog. That’s the kind of person I was.”
“That’s the kind of person I am,” Ellen said, smiling, but Kay gave her a serious look, and urged her to go easy on herself, insisting that guilt was a harmful indulgence.
At first, Ellen accounted her attraction toward Kay to their closeness in age, but beyond this, was the conviction that being with Kay allowed her to shed her fear about being unremarkable, a person who’d become a predictable fixture at work. With Kay, she had a heightened, cinematic sense of someone caring about her, watching her actions, even knowing her thoughts. She believed she’d found her match.
Kay was wealthy, and lived in an elegant house near the river, and Ellen stayed there on weekends and school breaks. When Kay mentioned the trip to Spain and living together, Ellen saw it as a chance to become a different person. Later, when she told Kay that she’d announced her retirement at school, she felt like a child who’d performed a feat for a parent’s praise.
“It’s all coming together,” Kay remarked, but one week before the trip, she said she was backing out.
Ellen was relieved. She’d had misgivings, but described how she’d looked forward to seeing the places Kay wanted to revisit. Kay had gone to Mojacar on her honeymoon.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about it, and need to trust my instincts,” Kay had said.
“What are you really afraid of?” Ellen asked, prepared to hear Kay say, “You.”
“Disappearing,” Kay said.
It was troubling and exhilarating to see that roles had been reversed. “You’re backing out of everything, aren’t you? Not just the trip?”
Kay nodded, her head rasping against Ellen’s breast, and then Kay left the bedroom. Ellen sat up, stunned, then peeked at Kay’s journal on the nightstand, seeing an account of a recent dream Kay had about the sensation of falling, but waking up before she hit the ground, a predictable, commonplace dream.
Ellen was furious later, waiting for Kay to call, as the trip approached. It was late-May and stormy, and she pictured the river flooding over, ruining Kay’s house. In another scenario, she imagined Kay becoming ill, pleading for help. The day before the trip, she saw Kay’s address and “Suspicious Circumstances,” in the newspaper.
“Items were stolen from the victim’s residence,” said a detective, “but there are peculiarities about the perpetrator’s actions that indicate a personal aspect to this crime.”
Someone had been staking out Kay’s house, and Ellen had the unsettling feeling of being the person who spied on Kay and the person being spied upon. She wondered if the culprit could’ve been a former lover of Kay’s, or a current rival.
“What is it that you want now?” Kay had asked on the phone.
“To help you out. I saw the crime report in the paper.”
“It wasn’t enough to steal from me, but to violate my personal space?”
“What happened? What are you saying?”
“It’s so dirty, what happened to me and my house,” Kay had said.
“I feel like a different person here,” Ellen wrote on the Mojacar postcard to Kay, praising the food, the hotel, and the views. “I hope that you’re well, and the worst is behind you. I think of you constantly.”
She wondered if Kay would be envious that she was staying at the hotel Kay had chosen, but knew it’d take at least a week for the card to reach Vermont, and Kay had likely moved on, relegating the love affair to a mistake in a past life.
An older, pudgy man in a green sports coat and a silky yellow shirt was in the dining room. His hair looked lacquered, and his complexion was odd, a mottled beige, like old soap. Ellen chose a table at the other end of the room.
“This place will be bustling soon,” he said. “We’re lucky to enjoy it now.”
“I imagine that everything around here picks up when the weather improves.”
“Very hot, though. It gets very hot. Muy caliente. And mosquitoes. Snakes, too. They come out. Is this your first time here?”
“You picked the right hotel. The last of its kind. Name’s Cooke, with an e. Dan Cooke.”
Ellen introduced herself, and nodded when he asked if she was alone.
“Sola,” he said sadly, and quickly moved to her table.
The waiter took their orders, and gestured toward the wet casement window. “Si, Señora Peterson, mañana, sol.”
“First time I came to Spain, it was with Liz. Married nineteen years,” Dan said. “What a time we had. She’s gone now.”
Ellen shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“She took up with another fellow,” he said. “What about Mister Peterson?”
“Also out of the picture. Must be hard for you, coming back here.”
“No, this trip has been better than I expected, but something happened to me in Madrid,” he said, and leaned toward her. “I was robbed!”
“One of my biggest fears. Did they take your passport?”
“No, but they swiped my wallet. I lost a sizable sum of money.”
Silly man. You should’ve had traveler’s checks. “How terrible for you.”
“A catastrophe. There’s no other word for it. A catastrophe. I was getting on the subway in Madrid. I dropped a package, and felt a tap on my shoulder and hands all over me. I thought people were trying to help, until I realized I was being robbed. Those guys were out of there pronto with my pesetas.”
“They must’ve been looking for an opportunity.”
“Yes, exactly. They seized on an opportunity. It happened in a blink of an eye.”
She was relieved when the waiter brought their dinners. Dan Cooke ate quickly. “Off your feed, Ellen?” he asked, looking at her plate
“I’ve had an unsettled stomach since I’ve been here.”
“Me, I’ve got an international stomach, but to be on the safe side, I always travel with certain medications. I’d be glad to give you a remedy.”
“No, but thank you.”
“Liz, bless her heart, had gastrointestinal problems, the result of years of pent-up rage.” He paused. “Sorry. I’ve been alone for days. Haven’t talked to a soul.”
“You’re the first person I’ve talked with, too.”
She shook her head.
“We have that in common. Well, I should turn in. They eat so late here, I get mixed up about time. In the summer, it stays light until ten. I was here the last time in the summer. Sorry, I’m getting carried away again.”
“You’re thinking about Liz?”
“No. Damndest thing. I was actually grateful when I felt those hands on me in the subway. I mistook thievery for kindness. I even said, ‘Gracias.’ Such is my nature.”
She nodded, feeling an agreeable shift toward him, the way stones come to rest in a different place after a hard rain. “Maybe I will try that stomach remedy.”
His room had the same furnishings and lemon-colored walls as her room. A letter was on the bureau. He offered her an ordinary Tums. “I travel widely in my profession, and need to be in tip-top shape.” He handed her a business card that showed two little boys in cowboy outfits. “Looking for an old pal?” it said. “Wild horses couldn’t tear you apart, but time has.”
“A finder. How exciting,” she said, though the card seemed preposterous.
“I was in the insurance business before. When my wife took off, I tracked her down in Kansas, shacking up with a shoe salesman. She never knew I was around, so there were no scenes. I felt sorry for the sap she was with. Liz was always hard to please, so I left Kansas, feeling fine.”
Ellen thought of the scenarios she imagined in Vermont, knowing the worst one would be Kay taking up with someone else, and telling the other woman about Ellen’s many faults. “I never really trusted her,” Kay would say. “She envied my house and my lifestyle. She even started to dress like me. I could tell you things about her that’d scare the hell out of you, but she’s a thing of the past now.”
“It’s adios for me the day after tomorrow,” Dan said. “What about you?”
“Four more days. I was supposed to come here with a friend, but—”
“We find ourselves in the same boat.”
He left abruptly, and entered the bathroom. She got up to leave, and glanced at the letter on the bureau. “Dear Liz, It has come to my attention,” was all it said.
He came up behind her, reeking of cologne, and pressing a metal object into her hand. A brassy trinket of a stick-figure man, his extended arms holding a rainbow, the sort of souvenir Kay had in abundance.
“An Indalo. It’ll protect you from malevolents,” Dan said. “It’s of no use to me anymore. The worst has already happened.” He paused. “I have a rental car. Care to join me on a little expedition tomorrow?”
“I haven’t seen much. But—”
He thanked her and quickly walked her to the door.
She wished Kay could see her now, making the most of things. A small step, really, but she hadn’t scurried home in a panic. She would join Dan Cooke tomorrow. The sun might come out, and she’d have a chance to see important historical sites.
The sky looked threatening the following morning, and her disappointment that Dan wasn’t in the dining room seemed familiar, as if her reaction to another’s absence was the one true and compelling fact of her life. When she asked the waiter about him, the waiter grinned. “Cookay,” he said. “Ah, señor Cookay.” He pointed to the doorway, where Dan stood, clutching a greasy paper bag, and wearing the same outfit as last night. His sandals creaked as he walked to her table. “I see you’ve got your appetite back. Good, because I plan to run you ragged.”
The car was tiny and egg-shaped, its sloping front and back end covered with black rubber. When he opened the door for her, she felt she was in a bumper car at an amusement park. She watched him writing in a notebook.
“I like to keep records. You wouldn’t believe the price of gas here.” He quickly pulled onto the road. “Hasta la vista, baby. Did you see that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? That’s what he said.”
She shook her head. She was with a buffoon in a clown car, spiraling down a steep hill. “I imagined all sorts of things happening here, but so far everything’s been a complete surprise.”
“Good thing we can’t see too far ahead, huh? I don’t like to look under the hood, if you get my drift. Psychiatrists would go broke if everyone was like me.”
“You’ve been pretty open with me.”
“I have nothing to lose,” he muttered.
She felt absurdly hurt. She closed her eyes, and pictured going to Kay’s house for the first time, and the luxurious sensation that everything—the river, the polished look of the stars and moon—had collaborated to bring her to this moment.
“We’re in the land of the Moors, the Conquistadors, and all the people who came later,” she told Dan.
“Yes, major battles were fought here,” he replied.
She wondered if Kay and her husband had maybe been on this road decades ago on their honeymoon.
“Got to make a little trip to the boys’ room.” He pulled off the road, and shambled into the bushes.
She glanced around, then opened the notebook he’d left on the dashboard—a notation about today’s weather, the odometer reading, and cost of last night’s meal.
“Ellen Peterson. Middle-aged. Occupation unknown. Divorced. A misfortunate soul.”
She shuddered, as if reading an accident report, and she wanted to make corrections, but it would return her to an old role. “Just let it go,” Kay had always urged. Ellen guessed that the letter she saw in Dan’s room was intended for his ex-wife. He was writing to her to get something off his chest.
No other cars passed, and she wondered what was keeping him. Maybe he sprained his ankle, or got lost. That would be unfortunate, and she could later tell the story of the mishap, and make being stranded in a clown car amusing.
The silly car must’ve prompted it. A recollection of going to the fair with her lover, Frances. Frances had run into a former girlfriend, both of them acting flirtatious. Ellen began to walk away, testing Frances. Such a childish thing she’d done, lingering in a quilt exhibit, hearing women describe the meaning of the intricate designs, the stories behind each quilt.
“I couldn’t find you,” Frances had said in the parking lot. “You had me scared. Are you happy now?”
“I learned something unexpected,” Ellen answered.
“About me? About yourself?”
“About myself,” Ellen said.
Frances had driven her home, but stayed in the car, like a parent dropping off a little kid at a house she was afraid to enter.
Dan emerged from the hillside. “I’ll have to cut our trip short, but I’m going to show you an unforgettable place.” His hands shook as he opened the paper bag, and began eating a pastry. “Here it comes,” he said, pointing to a valley. “Hard to see in this weather, but there are caves down there, formerly occupied by ancient people, and now by vagrants. Last time I came here, I saw a refrigerator in the middle of the desert, and this is exactly where Liz and I had a spat.”
He shrugged. “There, I did it. Closure for me, so now a surprise for you.”
Mini Hollywood, it was called, and she tried to mimic his enthusiasm for this unlikely place—a Western movie set, with a saloon, jail, and tiny church.
“The Desierto de Tabernas. Spaghetti Westerns. When you see one of those Clint Eastwood movies, it’ll take on something extra because you’ve been there.”
“I will. I’ll never forget it,” she said, like an earnest girl on a date.
“It’s back to our hotel. I wonder if other guests have arrived.”
She felt a plummeting sensation. The distraction of today’s trip would soon end, and then what? “The hotel surprised me. I expected a ritzier place.”
“Lucky for us it hasn’t gone modernistic, like the other places on the coast.”
“A friend recommended it,” she said, recalling every step that had set things in motion, starting with Kay rapturously describing the Costa del Sol, like an enticing invitation to renounce one vestige of her past life, replacing it with another. “We’ll do it with style,” Kay had said. “I’ll pay for everything.”
And then a sight Ellen had seen countless times—Kay undressing for bed, and slathering herself with cold crème—filled her with pity and shame, as if she were an onlooker, caught in the act of watching an aging woman doing a hopeless thing.
“I love you dearly, and it scares me to know that if I lost you, there’d be an awful hole in my life,” Kay had told her.
Ellen knew she’d never forget how afraid and embarrassed she’d felt for Kay, and that she’d been honest by saying, “I’ll never leave you. Trust me.”
The next day she announced her retirement to the principal, expecting him and her colleagues to try to talk her out of it.
“I just retired from teaching,” she told Dan.
“Good for you! And here you are in Spain, braving it alone on the heels of a catastrophe.”
“No, that happened to my traveling companion. A sudden breakup of a relationship. I begged her to go ahead with the trip, but she backed out. I should’ve stayed in Vermont with her.”
“I could help you out.”
“Help me out?”
“With your present situation. I’ll keep everything strictly confidential. Mr. Peterson. Where’s he at now?”
She hesitated a moment. She would become a proven liar, a spectacle, by telling him that she was a lesbian. “Probably having the time of his life.”
“I could find him. I’ve been known to track down dead-beat husbands.” He stopped the car, and took the notebook from the dashboard.
“He’s past history,” she said.
“Ooh,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Something just happened. I feel awful. You’ll have to man the helm, dear.”
His complexion was yellow, his forehead sheened with sweat. She had to help him out of the car, and position him in the passenger seat. When she got behind the wheel, he slumped over. She thought of everything he told her today and last night, stunned to realize that he might be gravely ill, and had come to Spain as his swan song. Hadn’t he given her that religious trinket, insisting that the worst had already happened?
“Dan?” she whispered, and patted his arm. “Dan?”
He startled her by sitting up and eyeing her suspiciously as he checked his pockets. “Whew. I had a little spell. Did I tell you I was robbed? Thieves made off with my fanny pack, and my necessary medications. I’m experiencing withdrawal!” he announced proudly, is if it were something to aspire to.
She nodded, and wondered if he had heart trouble or diabetes.
“Siesta’s over. I’m back in business.” He got out of the car, politely ushered her out of the driving seat, and then got behind the wheel.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
He patted her leg. “Not to worry. It passed.”
Withdrawal seemed to agree with him. He drove along, as if nothing had happened. “Why did you come back to Spain?” she asked him.
“I’m not on a case, if that’s what you’re thinking. I wanted to close the books on unfinished business, and I got something extra now.”
“Good for you,” she said, convinced that he had a mood disorder and selective memory.
“We were talking about your ex. Anything you want to tell me?”
“A serial convert, my ex. Addicted to fads and passing fancies. Easily duped.” She laughed, but felt low, betraying Kay.
“I could find him,” Dan said. “It’s the least I could do for you.”
“I’m doing fine,” she said, resenting his condescension, but he looked hurt. “If I change my mind, though, I’ll definitely get in touch with you.”
She saw the Mediterranean in the distance, and thought of the time she’d taken students on the Lake Champlain Ferry, pointing out Valcour Island, and explaining how the British fired at the island all night, wasting precious ammunition, believing it was an enemy vessel, while the Americans looked on. “Imagine that,” she’d told students. “Watching your enemy being fooled, and not having to lift a finger.”
Last night’s vivid sunset came back to her and the envy she wanted Kay to feel that she was living out Kay’s dream by returning to the place of her honeymoon.
“Look, we made it!” Dan said.
They’d reached Mojacar, the village looking like the pictures in her guidebook. A shutter opened at one of the houses, and at the fountain, a yellow cat lapped at the water.
Dan drove down the hill to the hotel, leaned over, and opened her door. She felt a small desolation when he shouted, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
She saw the waiter watching her through the lobby window, giving her a wink.
The waiter was gone when she went inside, and still no other guests in sight. No wonder Kay had forebodings about the trip. If they’d traveled to Spain together, Ellen would’ve belittled the hotel and the backward village. Would Kay even care to know that the landscape now contained Mini-Hollywood?
She must’ve expected that her room would’ve been plundered, given the trepidation she felt outside her door, but the room was as she’d left it. She’d only unpacked toiletries and the expensive lingerie she’d bought when Kay first proposed the trip. She rifled through her suitcase for the silk scarf Kay had given her when Ellen admitted that she’d tried to find one just like it. “Take it,” Kay had said.
She’d wear it tonight in the dining room. No need to look like a lonely old woman. She put on the lingerie and the scarf, and lay down, smelling traces of Kay’s lavender scent.
Her heart raced when she heard a tap on her door, but it was probably Dan, inviting her to join him for a fling on his last night in Spain. She’d insist on paying for everything.
“Señora?” whispered the waiter at her door. “Señora Peterson?”
He blushed and seemed shocked when she opened the door, as if he’d blundered into the wrong room He glanced at the unmade bed and her clothes scattered about. “Señor Cookay,” he said, handing her a note.
“It has come to my attention that I have misplaced my notebook. Can you enlighten me?” said the note.
Why didn’t Dan ask her in person? Was he afraid of her?
“No, señór. No,” she said, and gave the waiter some pesetas. He grinned and scuttled off.
Dan Cooke was unreliable. He probably left the notebook in the car, or lost it, after his little spell, but she worried he’d tell people later that she’d swiped the notebook and the Indalo trinket.
She emptied her purse on the bed. No notebook, only her traveler’s checks, the Indalo trinket, Dan’s business card, and the postcard she’d written yesterday.
“I feel like a different person here,” she read, followed by an exaggerated infatuation with the hotel and the views. “I hope that you’re well, and the worst is behind you. I think of you constantly.”
She tried to picture Kay feeling utterly bereft, understanding absence, and what she’d really lost last week. Then she tore up the card, and began a letter.
“Are you happy now?” she wrote, the question she should’ve asked when she told Kay that she’d announced her retirement. “You came as close to love as you’ll ever get, and it scared you. You—”
She felt she was reading a journal entry about herself. She couldn’t imagine what would come next, how she’d even face going to the dining room, so she tried to summon the hopeful feeling she’d had when Dan proposed today’s expedition. Then she pictured the night she’d gone to Kay’s the first time, the delectable sensation of watching Kay through a tall window, seeing her checking herself in the mirror before coming to the door.
The sound of boats returning now made her feel disoriented for a moment. She glanced at her little hotel room, the lemony walls and gusting curtains, then went to the window, seeing nodding boats, their sails lowered, and people collecting fish. Dan was right about how hard it was to keep track of time here. The day hadn’t begun to fold itself away despite the late hour.
How silly it seemed now to worry about going to the dining room, being seen by anyone, as if her biggest fear was the judgment of inconsequential people.
She tried on various outfits, deciding on the one she’d worn today, but with the silk scarf, and then she returned the items to her purse. She felt surprisingly lighter. Everyone already believed that she was untrustworthy and reckless, a woman historied with misfortune and envy, and infatuated with guilt. Only fools would risk getting close to her, since she’d likely steal anything intimate she could get her hands on.
“Take me,” Kay had said when they first made love, as if she had nothing to lose. “Take me.”