The sun slips through the clouds in the early evening, leaving tangerine and honey colored kisses on the face of the sky as it nods towards the horizon. The salty breeze dances off the waves, lifting my hair in playful wisps, but the warmth of the sun still lingers on my skin. If I close my eyes I can still picture the streets of Cozumel.
Inept tourists clambering from one shop on the strip to the next, mulling over their purchases with the tenacity of investment brokers. They calculate the value of the peso in terms of American numbers, haggling with the native merchants over the price of hand-painted maracas and Mexican tequila.
“Necklace for the lady, my friend? Come, step into my shop…senor, please, just a moment…this way, you will see…”
Tired old women perch their plump bottoms on the crumbling, corners of the alley-ways. Their nimble fingers weave delicate braids through the tresses of drunk college students. Iridescent beads woven through blonde hair are a sharp contrast to the smooth, mocha-fingers of the matrons.
Young mothers meander the narrow streets on rusty bicycles with equestrian-ease, their children stacked neatly on handle-bars and fenders, a tangle of thin, brown arms. I wonder if they are blind to the danger, then chide myself for my ignorance. The only cars on these streets are compact taxis and husky jeeps rented at port-side. The people who live here have their own way.
The smell of the country infuses the air. An extraordinary blend of salty-sea breezes, charred meat, and musky Mexican men. The tease of tropical fruits—fresh pineapple, banana and mango—sliced at sidewalk tables and peddled for a handful of change.
I am lost in the memory of this place…
“Mom, I’m bored.”
Another moment constricted by the umbilical cord of motherhood.
My fourteen year old son leans across the boat rails, his forlorn expression the killer of my moment.
“Don’t tell me you are bored. We spent $2000 on this cruise, surely there is something you can do.”
“No, I’ve done it all.”
“Go eat. The pizzeria is open 24 hours a day.”
He sighs. “I know. I’ve already had, like, 13 pieces of pizza today.”
“Go check out a board game from the Admiral’s Lounge.”
“The timer is broken in the Scattergories game, and Jenga is missing two pieces.”
“The pool is closed. They’re cleaning the waterslide.”
“What about karaoke? You did that last night, remember? That was fun.”
My son singing “Sweet Home Alabama” in a smoky bar full of senior citizens.
“Karaoke doesn’t start for another hour. Can I hang out with you?” The request seems to have cost him dearly. He can’t meet my eye, but instead studies his fingernails.
This is not the way I had hoped to end my day. After hours escorting three children and a cranky husband from one end of the shopping district to the next, I am ready for solitude. I don’t want to be a mother right now.
“No, you can’t hang out with me. Go watch a movie in the room until karaoke starts. I’m trying to relax.” With a sip of my drink he is dismissed.
He ambles off to the far-side of the Lido Deck with his head hung in a pout that I did not think I would ever get to see in a foreign country. “We should have gone skiing…”
The younger children are playing happily at Camp Carnival, in a room decorated with colorful clowns and smiling giraffes. They are painting t-shirts and making Spin-Art and being shuffled from the face-painting centers to story time.
But my oldest son, hovering in the awkward gap between boy and man, is lost.
My muscles ache after hours pounding hot pavement. If only I had had this margarita a few hours ago, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the ache so sharply now.
Later in the evening, with the little ones safely tucked in for a slumber party, my husband and I sneak out, back into the nightlife of Cozumel. We were hoping to enjoy the ambiance for a few hours alone. We were ready to revisit stubborn merchants in hopes of striking a better bargain, and perhaps have dinner in the quaint, quiet restaurant we had first visited nearly eight years ago.
We found the place, but decided to keep walking. We had forgotten the high prices of the menu, which were conveniently posted on the street near the entrance. Determined to save a few bucks, we trudged on.
In the daytime, this place had been magical. The music and the food and the words of the people had swirled about us in an intoxicating cloud.
But at nighttime, we found ourselves disoriented.
The wretched fumes of poverty seeped from the back roads and spilled out to each intersection. Sweat and cigar fumes, the odor of rotting trash. If you’re drunk, you don’t notice. If you’re sober, you hold your breath until you make it through the cross-way and back onto Shopper’s Row.
The people aren’t so lovely now. The women who eagerly sought our money for their fresh fruits are closing up business now, stepping around us with irritation as we window shop. Mumbled words are mercifully foreign to our ears. The men outside of their stores are weary with bargaining. They don’t look as if they care for our money anymore. We pass by, unnoticed.
It’s long past dark, but children are still running the street: dirty, barefoot with runny noses, half-naked with no mothers in sight. They look up as we pass, a mixture of fear and curiosity in their eyes.
Lonely dogs roam the sidewalks, wearing their ribs on the outside of their fur.
The boat doesn’t leave for hours, but we hail a taxi and ride back to dock early. A bobble-head Chihuahua perched on the dashboard keeps time with the radio, as our driver plows through one pothole after another, showing no kindness to our sore behinds.
Back in our suite, we unload our shopping bags and slip out of our street clothes. The stench of the city still clings to us. A fresh blouse and jeans, a spritz of Red Door, and I’m ready to walk the boat. I could drop another twenty bucks in the nickel slots, or maybe stay up for the comedian’s last show at midnight…I can squeeze another hour or two of alone time out of this day.
My son has left a note. It is anchored to the mirror with a small button of pink bubble gum.
Mom, I'll be at karaoke.
The words pinch my heart as I remember the cold shoulder I gave my first born earlier.
As my husband eases his worn frame onto the bed, lining up his Rolaids in the window sill, I slide a door key into my back pocket.
“Where you going?” he asks. “The casino again?”
A few minutes later, as I settle into a bar stool and order a Pepsi, my son steps up to the stage. The microphone is beginning to look more comfortable in his hand. The crowd recognizes their young performer, the one who kept them laughing the night before.
The first notes of a Britney Spears tune blast out of the speakers, and my son does a comical dance, then spins on one foot, to the feverish applause of the audience.
He catches my eye as I cheer from the sidelines and offer a little wave.
There will be enough alone time another day.