January 16, 1989, Tomatlán, Mexico.
I was sitting on the left side of a second-class bus two rows behind the driver. No one bothered to get off for the ten-minute stop in Tomatlán. The driver’s assistant stood at the front of the bus ready to collect tickets from any boarding passengers, but there were none. As we sat parked in the street with the engine running, I took in the view from my window. The cinderblock buildings lining the street had once been painted bright colors. But the colors had long since faded and some of the stucco had fallen from the buildings leaving a grey, almost monochrome scene. People were going about their daily routines. A little boy was pissing in the cobblestone street.
The street was bordered by a concrete curb and sidewalk, broken and uneven. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw her for the first time. Gliding along that broken sidewalk in red high heels. Never stumbling, never swerving, she must have known every hazard that lie in her path.
Even after so many years, I can still see her vividly in my mind’s eye. She wore a red skirt and white blouse. Her long dark hair contrasted with her light olive complexion and bounced with each effortless step she took. She appeared in vivid color, while the rest of the scene looked to be from an old black and white movie. She was a three-dimensional figure in a two-dimensional world. The sun shone only on her.
Once she had passed the parked bus, she turned and waved. Her red lipstick was smiling and she was waving at me. At me? No, the bus driver. She must know the bus driver, I realized. The driver slammed the stick into first gear and the bus lurched into the middle of the street. I fought the urge to grab my backpack and get off the bus. I wanted to meet her. But how could that possibly happen? I sat frozen in my seat, mesmerized by the scene that was fading behind me.
After just a few blocks the bus made an unscheduled stop. The driver got out and ran across the highway to a small house covered in purple bougainvillaea vines. My mind raced. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I let this opportunity slip away. Not that there was any opportunity at all, but somehow, I had to meet the girl in the red skirt. And the driver was my only link to her. I stood up and made my way to the open bus door.
"Estoy enfermo" (I'm sick), I mumbled to the driver's assistant as I stepped outside. Momentarily, the driver came jogging back to the bus in a fresh uniform and carrying a sack lunch. Gilberto, his name tag read.
He looked at me quizzically. "Señor, where are you going?”
“I’m going to Melaque.”
“This is Tomatlán, señor, Melaque is the next stop. Please return to your seat.”
As I obediently stepped toward the bus door, I asked over my shoulder, “Señor, back in town, the girl in the red skirt.” I stopped at the bus door and turned to him, “You know her?”
He grinned and gave me a knowing look. Motioning for me to get on the bus, he replied, "Sí señor, she is my cousin.”
Again, I asked over my shoulder, “And her name?”
“Esperanza,” he answered as he slipped into the driver’s seat.
Esperanza. That means “Hope” in Spanish. Either her name was Esperanza, or he was telling me to dream on. I settled back into my seat with Esperanza very much on my mind. She was young, but not too young. I was older, but not too old, I rationalized. I knew her name, I knew her cousin was Gilberto, and I knew where he lived. So, there was hope. There must be a way to meet her. The driver’s assistant shoved a cassette tape into the dashboard and mariachi music serenaded me as I began to hatch my plan. I would talk to Gilberto when we stopped in Melaque.
I’ve never been much of a dancer, but it felt as if my shiny black shoes never touched the floor as Esperanza and I swirled around the hotel ballroom. Our first dance. Me in my tuxedo and her in her billowing white ballgown. Her long veil flowing behind her and her face lighting up the room. From this day forward, I would be known as the gringo who married Esperanza. That would be just fine with me.
For the first time in my life, I could see my future clearly. As if I were looking down a long road with each mile being the equivalent of a year’s time. I could see Esperanza and I happily walking down that road hand in hand. Some thirty miles or so in the distance I could see a house with a bougainvillaea-covered porch and grandchildren playing in the yard.
“Abuelito, Gilberto is taking us to town for ice cream! Come on, we can ride in the back of the truck!”
“Oh, I think I’ll just stay here and ride my rocking chair, kids. Have a good time.”
With Esperanza’s hand caressing my shoulder, I watch Gilberto’s grandchildren and mine heading toward town in the back of his truck. I can actually feel her hand gripping my shoulder and gently shaking.
“Señor, señor, wake up please.”
My eyes popped open. “Gilberto! I thought--”
“This is Melaque, señor. This is your stop.”
I stood and grabbed my backpack from the overhead rack.
“Gracias, señor,” I stammered, still half asleep.
Stepping from the bus I heard the door close behind me. Then Gilberto going through his gears, the bus rattling away leaving me alone in the middle of the road. A strange feeling swept over me as I came to my senses. I had not executed the first step of my plan, talking to Gilberto.
At the end of the road I could see a big orange ball settling into the sea. I began walking toward it and realized that I was young again. The sounds of Melaque began to sink into my brain. A bus in the distance, the clinking of dishes from a restaurant kitchen just ahead, the surf pounding on the beach. I saw the silhouette of tourists standing on the beach watching the big orange ball disappear. Even the locals seemed to pause in reverence for another day gone by. The smell of corn and red peppers roasting on charcoal quickened the pace of this hungry traveler. Anticipation began to once again steer me into another adventure. I plodded ahead toward a burger, a beer, a hammock, and a dream.