We were in the Cuernavaca station, waiting for another bus, going on another date that we called an “excursion,” as if renaming it could turn it into something else, something permissible. As if I didn’t have a husband at home.
David and I had met at a Spanish language school, though we weren’t in the same class. He was fluent, a Spanish teacher taking classes toward his credential. I was trying to learn enough Spanish to fulfill the language requirement for my doctoral work. We had met our first weekend in Mexico on one of the program’s cultural excursions, a trip to Teotihuacan, the ancient Mayan city. Strolling along the Avenue of the Dead, David had made me laugh harder than I had in months.
Now, we were headed to the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a large network of underground caves. I watched the curve of David’s face. He wiped his forehead and said, “I sweat a lot. Sorry.”
“Sweating is good for you,” I said, and David smiled.
We sat on wooden benches among other travelers and sipped bottled water. Women with baskets full of fruit and bread weaved through the crowds. Taxi drivers leaned against old cars, waiting for fares. Dogs sniffed the streets for food, noses buried in garbage. A neon sign flashed red and blue.
I moved my hand from my lap and onto the bench, hoping gravity would pull David’s hand to mine. Instead, he held a ripe grapefruit between his fingers and peeled it, exposing the naked flesh. He handed me a triangle of fruit, red and wet, with skin as soft as paper. As we ate, the peels curled on the bench like question marks. I wiped my sticky hands on my shorts.
Eventually, the bus rattled down the dusty road.
“Vámonos,” David said. “To the caves.” I swallowed water, dry air, and dust and followed him to the bus.
David and I shared a too-small bus seat even though there were plenty of options. The Mexican landscape moved past the windows, and I watched ladies selling sundries on the side of the road, construction crews repairing asphalt. It seemed as if every American love song from the 1980s played on the radio: REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” When Journey’s “Open Arms” came on, I felt like I was back at a junior high roller-skating party, where my talent for skating backward had gone unrecognized because nobody had ever asked me to couples’ skate. I remember standing there in my Flashdance sweatshirt, hoping I looked approachable but not desperate.
Now, somebody was clearly asking me to skate. What a feeling! I was a teenager again, in that dorky-but-alive way. Did I really have to go backward to go forward?
Would I really have to cheat on my husband to feel alive again?
I had carefully crafted the life I’d always imagined—the tenured teaching job, the husband who liked to ski, the cabin in the woods, our large network of friends, even the furry mountain dog. I’d told myself this two-week solo trip to Mexico was just a break from my life, and that once I returned, I would be happy again. I told myself that all the arguments where we both started sentences with “You’re the one who . . .” would magically end.
David held my hand and read to me from his guidebook. Las Grutas was one of the largest cave systems in the world.
When we arrived, David led the way past other tourists, mostly Mexicans, to the entrance. We went through the turnstiles where the Chontalcoatlán and San Jeronimo rivers merge and learned that we could not enter the caves without a guide. A Spanish-language tour was leaving momentarily. My Spanish wasn’t very good, but David could translate what I missed.
We crowded with the other tourists into the living Cacahuamilpa caves, where water still cuts into rock. Inside, the air felt sparse, quiet, humid, still. David reached for me through the darkness. When our hands met, both were damp with sweat.
The guide told us, “Automatic lighting will be triggered by movement sensors.” As we descended, the rocky aisle lit up, and our bodies cast shadows on the walls. Underground rivers splashed below. Our guide pointed out rock formations: fanciful resemblances of cave pearls, asparagus, broomsticks, tortillas.
We walked down the narrow pathway, single file. David’s breath wafted against the back of my neck, and the hot air sent tremors down my spine. I became my desire; nothing else mattered but my own body in relation to this other body. My heart seemed to pump closer to the surface of my skin. Every last bit of reason was now crowded out by longing.
I have heard people say that they “couldn’t help” cheating, but I could have helped it. I could have said no to that final date. I had renegotiated the rules for myself, as far as what was acceptable: “excursions,” hand-holding. But I kept pushing at the invisible boundary. Once I entered those caves, the choice was made. I would not go back to the little house my husband and I shared in Lake Tahoe, nor to our life together. It scared me, but in that moment desire took over, and I didn’t have to think. David and I were like magnets hovering in a state of attraction and resistance before they collide. The air between us felt like that—a force field of torque and spark.
One of my favorite novels is Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In it, Tomas, a fantastic womanizer, cheats on his wife, Tereza. He carries no guilt. The burden, which manifests itself as bizarre dreams, is entirely on Tereza.
I saw myself in both characters. I was acting like Tomas, but like Tereza, I couldn’t help but carry the burden of guilt.
The guide told us the decay of isotopes occurs at a predictable rate. Something formed and destroyed at the same time—the ways of the Earth. We continued to walk, and David pressed his palm into the small of my back. We passed through the Goat, Throne, and Cathedral salons, named for their formations. The guide pointed out other features: Gypsum flower, Medusa’s Head, tangled vines. David muttered these translations into my ear and then pulled me to the side and whispered, “Vámonos.”
We veered down another passageway, away from the group. The guide was busy clarifying how stalactites and stalagmites are formed, so he didn’t notice us stray.
David and I stumbled upon a giant underground amphitheater, one with theater-style chairs used for concerts and other events. Eventually, the motion-sensing lights went out, and we sat down in the dark stillness. I realized we could easily get lost in the maze of the caves, and the thought excited me. To be alone with David, underground, not just in another country, but in another world. My other life—the one where my husband and I grocery shopped together, sat down to meals with friends, backcountry skied or hiked on the weekends—seemed so very far from here, burrowed into a small corner of my brain.
I had spent so many years building the life that I was about to destroy.
The smells closed around us: mineral earthiness, underground rivers, our own salty sweat. Desire is dependent on the wanting but not yet having, the body’s tingle and ticking and tumble. The maybe-ness of possibility.
After a first, hesitant kiss—the space between us finally broken—we nearly devoured each other. Hands moved over bodies, hard and wet and trembling. I felt like a school of small silver fish swam in my veins. I don’t know how long we were there; time disappeared, and what was left was one body frantic for the other.
Our group eventually approached the amphitheater, and we had to pull ourselves apart. We slipped back into the group unnoticed, our bodies still full of yearning. The guide said we could return on the lighted path at our own pace, so we wandered back slowly.
At the mouth of the cave, the two subterranean rivers reemerged above ground, forming the Amacuazac River. Pale green leaves of amate trees fluttered in the wind. Our pupils wide, we blinked at the bright sunlight and walked into it.
The following evening would be David’s last night in Mexico, so we had made plans to meet up with all our friends from the language school for happy hour. It was dos por uno—two-for-one beers. I chose a seat across from David, and we stole glances at each other and smiled. I hoped no one would notice, but I’m sure they did.
A group of mariachis in powder-blue tuxedos played for us, and we reached into our pockets for pesos to tip them.
“Let’s go dancing at MamboCafé,” somebody said.
Even as the rest of our friends got up to go, David and I stayed at the table. “We’ll meet you there,” David told them.
Once everyone had left, I said, “It’s hard to believe you’re leaving tomorrow.”
“I know.” He got up and sat next to me, taking my hand under the table.
“Happy hour’s almost over,” I said. “It’s your last chance to get dos por uno.”
“I’m okay. I don’t want anything else.”
“Do you want to go to the dance club?” I asked. The mariachis started up a song for a couple on the other side of the restaurant.
David shook his head. “I think I would rather walk around Cuernavaca with you.”
“In the rain?”
“I have an umbrella.”
We strolled the streets, past the Capilla del Carmen, Templo de la Tercera Orden de San Francisco, through the water-soaked Jardín Borda with its red-blooming trees that my teacher had called llama del bosque—the flame of the forest. The misty rain glowed in the yellow light of the streetlamps. Taxis passed us, sounding their horns, flashing their lights, wondering if we wanted a ride. We kept walking, entering unfamiliar neighborhoods.
A street dog skittered out of the way of a car, its claws click-clacking on pavement. I couldn’t help but think of my own dog, Riva, at home with my husband. I clutched David’s hand and noticed, for the first time, that his fingers, his hands, were smaller than my husband’s.
The rain picked up, falling in gray sheets. Despite the umbrella, we were drenched. It was near midnight when we came upon a small group of pink stucco cabanas with red tile roofs—the Hotel Cádiz—and paused at the front gate. Palms rustled in the courtyard. The sign read Libre. Vacancy. Bienvenido a Casa. Welcome Home.
I followed David down the red concrete, jig-sawed by weeds.
Just to get in from the rain, I told myself.
We walked into the hotel office. Fluorescent bulbs flickered from the ceiling. A man with deep wrinkles and tired eyes asked us if we wanted a room. David told him yes.
“And your luggage?” he asked.
David shook his head, saying, “No, no los tenemos.” We have none.
The man pointed to a shelf behind him, asking us what we needed: bottled water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shaving cream, razors, soap? David told him we’d take two bottles of water, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. When David pointed at the condoms, I looked down at the tile floor.
We followed the man through the courtyard, past a sputtering fountain, to the room. He asked us if the room was okay. David told him that it was, and the man left us.
The room was sparse but clean. The walls were an earthy red, the lamps on the bed tables, ceramic, cut with shapes, so the light scattered circles and triangles on the red wall. The rain bounced off the metal roof in tin echoes. I sat on the edge of the bed—full-size, with a carved wooden headboard, the cama matrimonial that David had asked for. Even with my limited Spanish, I knew the direct translation: wedding bed.
David came to me. “Is everything all right?”
I nodded, got up, and walked to the bathroom to dry off and brush my teeth with our shared toothbrush. I took off my wedding ring and placed it on the counter. I glanced into the mirror, my rain-soaked hair, then looked back at the silver ring. I decided this gesture was useless; I wasn’t fooling anyone, not even myself. I slipped it back on my finger.
I took off my wet clothes and slid between the sheets. There was no reason to play coy. The truth was there in the room—a body wanting a body. David’s bare feet padded across the red tile floor as he walked to the bed.
Outside the window, crickets called through the light rain. I turned off the lamp, and the shapes on the walls disappeared, replaced by shadows and flashes of lightning.
“What’s lightning in Spanish?” I asked.
“Truenos.” He took off his T-shirt and shorts and pulled back the sheet.
“Guapa,” he said, looking at me in the shadows.
I remember the rain and the metal roof, the lightning and claps of thunder, the break in rain and the crickets’ song rising into the mist. I remember the shadows the palm trees cast across the floor. But I don’t remember the sex. I do know it was over so quickly the first time that we waited and tried again. After that, I assured myself that the sex would improve once we got to know each other better. But desire leaves once you have gotten what you wanted. Without a body full of desire, I felt only shame.
Would I ever see him again?
How would I face my husband?
Wasn’t this what I had wanted all along—to change my life?
* Art by Brenda Stumpf.