I did something out of character at the airport in Mexico City: I complained. I waited in line with my tan leather suitcase, light with only four days’ worth of clothes inside, and when it was my turn at the desk, I became an American—or rather, what I expect these two pretty, middle-aged Mexican women in identical uniforms consider to be the predominant features of the national temperament, whiney, angry, never satisfied, always trying to scam their way into more perks within their class.“Excuse me!” I said, giving my voice a troubled edge. “I’ve already taken two connecting flights this morning, and both times I was assigned a middle seat.” I flapped my arms to indicate overcrowding. “All the way here from Cincinnati, skewered by elbows!” I placed my boarding pass on the counter. “Is there any way I could at least have a window seat on the flight to Acapulco?”
The truth is, I wanted the window for its sense of adventure. I wanted to watch as the carboard flatlands of Mexico crumpled into mountains before dissolving into Pacific blue. I pictured a strip of coastline unraveling like yellow yarn and canvas umbrellas staked in the sand and beautiful, hairy men in blue Speedos peering out from grottos, and bright lizards the size of my hand. I’d never been to Mexico before, and at age 64, it had seemed doubtful that I ever would. Then David wrote me a message on Facebook and now here I am, dancing like a chicken in front of two airline representatives in an oceanic airport in one of the most crowded cities in the world.
I’m not a romantic. Not usually. Or rather I’m a romantic like I’m a smoker—it was something I dabbled in during my teens and twenties but eventually it left me tired and defeated and a little self-disgusted, so I quit. I’ve never been married—got close twice, but missed or dodged that union and I’m still waiting for thank-you notes from the two women who were lucky enough to escape me as a fate. I live alone on the East Side of Cincinnati in a Cape Cod-style bungalow with my Rottweiler, Connie and my garden beds. My profile floats on a few dating sites, but that’s mostly so my friends can’t accuse me of not trying. I am happy, or I thought I was. “We’re very sorry you haven’t been comfortable,” the taller of the two agents said as she printed out a new ticket. “Enjoy your window.”
What I didn’t count on was the propeller. I climbed into my seat, fastened my belt, and glanced out the window, which had a direct view of four rotor blades sparkling in the bald Mexican sunlight. Still, I wasn’t overly concerned, too distracted by watching the other passengers march single file down the center aisle. I expected characters of the fictional 20thCentury variety—smugglers, thieves, widows on the run, a shamed Hollywood star—but most of my fellow travelers looked like me, in their mid-sixties, wealthy enough, looking frazzled from the simple task of keeping track of their scant belongings. The group seemed to be evenly split between Mexicans and Americans. There were a few lanky young men among us—extremely handsome in my book, if you like the Nordic high cheekbones and fair hair; judging from their deep, stablished tans, they worked outside for a living and my guess for each of them was tennis instructor. I wondered whether David played tennis and then I wondered whether I still could.
There was so much perfume and cologne battling for air rights in the cabin, I felt underdressed in my failing deodorant, applied to my armpits at 4:30 this morning in order to catch my first plane. A young Mexican woman sat down next to me, her hair done up in a complicated arrangement of clips and pins. I offered her a smile, which she ignored in order to cover her eyes in a mask and fall promptly asleep. It was just as well. I couldn’t have answered the inevitable question of why I was flying to Acapulco anyway. There came the announcement for departure. I said my goodbye to the tarmac of Mexico City. Then the propeller outside my window sprung to life. We shot off into the sky, and I proceeded to experience a full half-hour of pure, unadulterated terror. Why in god’s name had I asked for a window seat?
I’ve flown a fair amount in my life—to Europe twice. Out to California six times. To New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami. I even went to Australia once on an enormous double-deck Airbus. It honestly never occurred to me to be afraid to fly. But I had never ridden in a prop plane before. Prop as in propeller, as in your entire seat vibrates with the clunky hum of a pinwheel spinning right by your right cheek. As we climbed the blue sky, I became obsessed with the brown metal blur outside my window. It wasn’t that the whirling blades blocked the view—I could still technically see through them or around them or whatever the optical effect is called that allows you to complete a picture from moving parts. The problem for me was the constant reminder of the propeller. There I sat next to the single piece of equipment that was keeping this entire aircraft twenty-thousand feet in the air. I began to worry that a flock of birds or some random piece of debris might get sucked into the blades and jam them. I imagined smoke pouring from its motor or a screw falling loose or the blades moving incrementally slower like a ceiling fan switched off. It felt like my duty as a man who sells futures in gold for retirement investment portfolios to be constantly monitoring the propeller’s wellbeing. It takes twenty-five minutes to fly from Mexico City to Acapulco—a tiny hop by any definition—but it felt like molasses hours in which I was quickly devolving into a state of panic. I tried gripping the armrest. I considered waking the young woman next to me for a no-holds-barred conversation about whatever she wanted to discuss—horses, vacuum cleaners, the Republican Party, my sex life, honestly, I’d take any topic and run with it. I tried reading the in-flight magazine, but my copy was only in Spanish. So, I closed my eyes and thought about David.
David Doherty. Fucking sissy. We used to beat the crap out of him at St. Luke’s Day School. He was so scrawny, so falsetto-voiced, so good at the piano. It seemed like a duty to punch him in the stomach, a requirement of our Catholic faith, and it wasn’t just that his mom was divorced (a sin), or that his older sister was a notorious slut (a plus), or that they were borderline poor (an unforgiveable sin in our zip code at least); no, it was simply that he was so physically weak and took the daily abuse with doled out with minimal complaint—tears but no telling. I was a bully, I admit it. But so was everyone else in the class, including half the girls when it came to David. We never watched him outgrow this lowest of roles in our strict pecking order. He left after sixth grade, off to another school where presumably a new group of students had the good fortune of sadistically torturing him. We’d write on his shirt. We’d write on his forehead. We’d hold his skinny little wrists behind his back and try to kick him in the balls. When his mom dropped him off in the morning in her cheap little two-seater Volkswagen, we’d surround the car, chanting his name, almost like he was famous: give us your son, we want to watch his blood run. His frightened mother would mouth words to him, uselessly encouraging I’m sure, but we couldn’t hear them through the glass.
I hadn’t thought of David Doherty once since sixth grade. Not until a year ago when, out of the blue, he sent me a friendship request. It all flooded back, my deep hatred of him. That hatred continued as I perused the clues of his life from the peek hole of his social-media page as if it had never taken a fifty-year hiatus. He had become a professor, a linguist of some sort, whatever that means, and had lived in Portugal, Botswana, Istanbul, and Prague. He had not aged any better than the rest of us—sunspots, thinning lips, a hairline that was beginning to look like a headband—but he did seem to enjoy his age more. His life was such a motely of colors and trips and curiosities; he travelled religiously, and mixed with young and old, black and white, gay and straight (or whatever the young people call themselves now). I found it all highly irritating, like David was rubbing the peace he’d found in himself and his adventurous existence and his liberal politics in my face—like he was happy on purpose simply to get back at me—and I regretted accepting his friendship request. I read the comments on his postings, and even his replies to those comments, searching for some evidence of the David I had known, the miserable one, the weak child afraid of kickballs and playgrounds and school bathrooms. Then one morning, I checked my account, and a message popped up. “Hi.”
To my amazement, the plane landed safely in Acapulco. I didn’t see the mountains or the coast because my eyes were gripped shut, but I felt the hard bounce of tires on concrete, which confirmed that we weren’t death-spiraling into the sea. I waited my turn to climb from my seat and removed my suitcase from the overhead bin. The passengers were herded across the tarmac under sunlight so piercing I couldn’t absorb much of my new surroundings beyond HOT. Southern Ohio is situated in a very humid river valley and gets a strong August sun, but this substance radiating down on me like knife-blades was grade-A, uncut heat. To put bare feet on the cement here would mean instant blisters. As I hadn’t checked any luggage, the airport was merely a brief respite of shade between two stretches of exposed asphalt. I waited in line at the taxi stand, telling myself, don’t get scammed, don’t get scammed, and soon it was my turn to slide across the sticky vinyl backseat and pronounce the name of the hotel that David had written in his email. What am I doing?I thought as the driver nodded and put his car in gear. Is it too late to turn around and catch the next three flights back to Cincinnati?
The taxi’s air conditioning system made all the right sounds of heavy-duty cooling, but it produced zero air from its vents. I didn’t want to bother the driver who was concentrating on finding a radio station. Instead, I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out, grabbing for any sort of breeze.
David and I began exchanging messages on a twice-daily basic. Initially their gist centered around benign, hand-picked memories of teachers and rooms at St. Luke’s, never once referencing our one-sided transactional relationship of bully-victim. Was I remembering him, us,incorrectly? Did I have the wrong David flagged in my mind as the sacrificial goat in the class that made the rest of us a more harmonious community? I tried to address the subject head on, typing out an apology—David, I just want to tell you, I’m very sorry for….—but I deleted it and closed the tab. I couldn’t risk stirring the past up. I’d started looking forward to David’s messages, and I worried I might remind him of the terrible person I was and might well still be. Once you start apologizing, you never stop. Finally, I decided to just let go of it, let the punches disappear in the roar of fifty years. David told me about his life in Prague, about living with a “loving partner” in Turkey for several years before deciding to move back to New York alone, about his idea of buying land in West Mexico and settling down there in his retirement. I told him about my fishing trips in Michigan, about Connie and her ear mites, and about all the new construction around St. Luke’s that I pass every morning on my commute to the office. After three weeks of our back-and-forth messaging, David disappeared. He wasn’t online and hadn’t been for four days in a row. I figured, sadly, that our reunion might have run its course. But the following Saturday, as I was drinking my coffee and staring out at the David (no relation) Austin rosebushes I’d planted in my front yard, a message flashed on the screen. He told me he’d just broken up with his partner Paul of six years, that it had been a tough decision but had reached its natural end. My reaction confused me. I was struck with a strange feeling of gladness at the news, not the usual gladness I’d felt watching David suffer. Rather, that he, like me, was free and unattached. I’d been sitting in my wood chair at the table and as I stared down at my lap, I noticed—excuse the bluntness—I was hard.
This isn’t a confession. I’ve always harbored an attraction to men and it never really bothered me once I left my teens. I assume most men feel as I have, an arousal with each other, and I refuse to be so brutal to my own psychology to deny it. No, I don’t reveal this to strangers, but I might share it with a close friend. I’ve pretty much left this urge, this feeling, unresolved inside of me because I’ve never felt it needs any resolution. Does that make sense? And yet, once David told me about his breakup, I found myself hurrying to my computer in the mornings, and working out the composition of my messages to him on my long walks with Connie before work. I wanted my replies to be enticing enough to keep David interested, keep him writing me back with more questions—I wanted him to badger me, force me, to divulge private details about myself. I wanted him to tell me I wasn’t old, and it wasn’t too late.
“I was a difficult kid,” I typed one morning, trying to achieve the provocative balance of elusive yet honest.
“Being a kid is difficult,” he wrote back.
“I had problems. Anger.”
He didn’t respond. Not for a full day. It tortured me. Finally, the next morning, after a bad night’s sleep, there was a message from him. “I did a virtual tour of a few properties in Mexico,” he reported. It seemed he was unwilling to face the past. I tried a different approach.
“I wish I had been taught to be gentle,” I replied. It read like such a ridiculous sentiment, too embarrassing and paltry for a grown man of sixty-some years to write, but I found myself swallowing hard when I read my words on the screen. “I’m sorry for who I was.”
When I informed my coworker Angela that I was going on a week’s vacation to see an old friend in Acapulco, she asked me whether I’d researched the city. I pretended that I had. “Then you saw that it’s pretty much a crimewave, right?” She commandeered my keyboard and image-searched the city’s name. What came up an onslaught of beaches and sun and frolicking couples following by dead bodies machine-gunned down in a dusty side street. It went on like that, a 50-50 split between holiday fun and war-zone violence. Angela waved her blue fingernail at me. “It’s run by cartels. It’s a serious rape and murder capital.” It briefly occurred to me that David might be luring me to Acapulco as his ultimate revenge; let the cartels butcher me as punishment for my abuse on him. “Why not try the Atlantic side?” Angela suggested. “It’s much safer. Let me show you the pics I took when Jeff and I went to Tulum last spring.”
The taxi sped and braked, sped and braked, through a jangle of backstreets. There were flashes of blue sea on one side and vendors selling coconuts and boxes of tissues on the other. Palm trees abounded. I had been so eager to arrive in a foreign country, but somehow a wave of sadness fell over me just as I was getting my first real glimpse of it. I was scared of seeing David again, and I missed Connie and my little greenhouse addition off my kitchen and even my run-down street with its tall, handsome pine oaks that bend around the telephone wires. I thought of Angela’s warning and realized my hand was hanging out the window and the silver ring on it might tempt thieves. I retracted my hand and wound the window up. Was David ever afraid in Acapulco? Did he worry about cartel violence as he went about his day?
The taxi stopped at a gate, and the driver engaged in a rapid conversation with a guard in a wooden booth. I didn’t understand any of it. The guard was dressed in military tans, and he leaned out of his booth to take a look at me in the backseat, as if my white skin were a passport to the land on the other side of the gate. He waved us through, and we drove up smooth black concrete until we reached the shade of the hotel’s porte cochère. I paid the driver and tipped him generously, thanking him in English. I noticed he had a photograph of two infant girls taped to his dashboard and imagined him cradling these daughters, one in each arm, when he got home. Retrieving my suitcase from the trunk, I walked into the lobby, where one long wall was covered in old, black-and-white photographs of dead movie stars. There were also handprints preserved in squares of red clay, with famous signatures scrawled below them. As I walked quickly by, it looked like the celebrities were waving from beyond the grave.
“Hello,” I said to the young man at the reception desk. He wore a shapeless linen kaftan the color of sherbet. “I’m meeting someone with the last name Doherty. Perhaps you could tell me their room number?” I felt shy, asking for David’s room. My whole face burned red. I had never asked to be admitted to a man’s hotel room before, and even though I doubt this young man cared or even noticed, I felt exposed, drawn out of the Ohio I’d been hiding in.
“What’s the name?” the receptionist asked, staring down at his monitor, missing both my smile and flushed cheeks.
I told him and after a shower of keystrokes, he said, “Ah, David. David Doherty.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
The receptionist grabbed a telephone and spoke in Spanish to someone on the other end. “Bungalow one-four-seven. Shall I call you a—”
“I can find it,” I said quickly. “Thank you very much.”
I spun around and hurried out of the lobby, nearly tripping over a garden hose that had been uncoiled to water a chorus of red, tongue-shaped flowers in one of the wells. White wood arrows inscribed with gold numbers ranging from one to two hundred pointed up a steep incline of curving concrete. I began my climb, this pilgrimage hundreds of miles to see a man I had bullied merciless in grade school.
I told David about one or two of the crushes I’d had on men in college. He hadn’t asked exactly, but in the warm glow of the screen, I sensed an unspoken curiosity. I admit I was disappointed by his demonstrable lack of surprise in reply. I felt like I was sharing a bold secret—no, not murder, not even trespassing, but something clandestine and transgressive no less, at least for a man of my age who had gone for so long without. It angered me, his kind, quiet understanding, and I had to drive Connie to the park and spend a few hours in the warm safe air, the small park hugged by expensive houses and rich neighborhoods and schools not unlike St. Luke’s. I was hurt that my honesty hadn’t seemed to faze him in the slightest. I expected him, perhaps, to express some kind of interest in me, his tough, childhood bully now a possible sexual prize. There was none of that. Eventually, when I found other ways to introduce this same subject into our conversation, he asked if I’d found opportunities to explore that side of myself. Here and there, anonymous gropes, nothing of any meaning, some nervous fumbling around in college, drunk and stupid, nothing fancy.What did that message read like to a professional linguistic? But tell me about you, I wrote back. Did you have any experiences with men when you lived here, before you moved away?He replied, Tons, and I felt a pang of jealousy at all I’d missed.
Goldie Hawn was full of maids. Mel Gibson was stuffed with gardening equipment. Pink and white golf carts zoomed up and down the hill, each one boasting the name of a different celebrity on its bumper. Five minutes into my hike, my modestly packed suitcase had taken on the weight of a boat anchor. My calves were aching, and I could feel the chafe of my pants against my sweaty thighs. The sun loomed high overhead, a silver glimmer like two swords forming a star, and a burn was creeping across my neck. Why hadn’t I thought to buy sunglasses and sunblock at the airport? Who forgets those things when they come to Acapulco?
Single-story stucco houses were built into the hillside, each unit wrapped in a white metal gate and each nesting a robin’s egg of a swimming pool. Shadows that might have been lizards slipped through mulch beds. Teams of workers in green polo shirts were pruning hibiscus and bougainvillea. Others plastered and painted over ulcerous corrosions on railings and walls. This whole resort complex must exist in a never-ending state of decay. Enormous black birds swirled above me. Vultures, I thought. I was desperate for a glass of water. I stopped by a palm tree, and even though it looked like it was standing there as a decoration, I rested against it for a moment. I was overcome with the sense that this trip had been a huge mistake. I was 63. I hadn’t seen this man since I was a kid. We were not lovers, not yet, and we certainly had never been friends.
Kathleen Turner sped by me. The cart stopped ten feet up the hill and reversed back down to where I was standing. The driver waved for me to climb into the cart. Of course, I thought, the carts are for the guests as well as the staff! No one was expected to make this trek on foot!I thanked the driver profusely, and he handed me a packet of tissues to swab my face. We lurched off in the cart at delicious, wind-cooling speed. I used both hands to cling onto the grip bar and kept my suitcase pinched between my legs. But now I could see the beauty of the place. A hundred bungalows blossomed down the hillsides in every direction. There were so many shades of swimming-pool blue. The Pacific Ocean glittered far below. I’d had my reservations about taking a swim in the sea, picturing sharks lurking under the surface, but now, more than anything, I wanted to run into the waves and dive deep. And just like that, all over again, I was so thankful for David’s invitation.
He didn’t ask for these answers, and technically I’m not even sure they were answers. But one night after a glass of wine, I told him I had masturbated in the confessional box of St. Luke’s in eighth grade. I told him my dick size, length and width. I told him about the young man I watched showering at the sports club over my lunch break that afternoon, how all I wanted to do was to lie at his feet and look up with my mouth open at his beautiful, nude body. I told him I’d never sucked off anyone before, only been sucked off. I told him I had no sex toys. I told him I was willing to try anything, and wanted everything to be tried on me, that I didn’t mind the idea of pain. I told him how much I weigh, how many pushups I could do in one minute, how many hours I tended to sleep. I told him Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Obama, Clinton, Biden. O-positive. High blood pressure. I told him I was afraid of being electrocuted.
The golf cart stopped in front of a white gate with the brass numbers 147 affixed on a post. I jumped out, gathered my suitcase, and followed a winding garden path around the back of the house. My nerves were crawling all over me. This is your last chance to turn around. David can’t hurt you if he doesn’t see you. You still have the smallest window of escape. I turned the corner and twenty feet down on the stone path, there he was stood by the gate.