Sonja sipped her cocktail, leaving bright red lipstick marks on the two tiny straws. She wore tight jeans, a black silk blouse, and a little too much perfume. Every so often Sonja would glance at the wooden entrance doors, and her bracelets would jangle each time she turned.
Patrick sat across from her at a high top cocktail table, just a few feet from a window. Whenever Sonja’s bracelets rattled, he would study a different part of her. He had just focused on her dark brown eyes, noticing the freckles and the pronounced crow’s feet. He liked how her black bangs hung just above her false eyelashes.
“You can’t remember what song was playing when we kissed,” she said in a heavy Boston accent.
“Twenty fucking years ago.”
“Nineteen. Breed Junior High was nineteen years ago. And I do remember the song, an 80’s classic.”
“We’re a couple of 80’s classics,” Sonja said and giggled. “Fuck, how is it 2003?”
“Some things are gone from my mind forever. Others linger, as clear as if you’re watching a movie.”
“Like the kiss we had, and our dance you talked about in the email.”
“It’s okay if you don’t remember,” Patrick said. “It was a party at Flannigan’s house. In the basement of that triple decker. I went there with my friend Braydan.”
“You ever see Braydan anymore? You guys were like brothers.”
"Not since high school. What about you and Ally?”
“She’s here at the Porthole all the fucking time. If they ever sell the place, Ally comes with it.”
“Crazy I haven’t seen Braydan in years,” Patrick said.
“You say ‘years’ funny. Like you’re from California or something.”
“Lived in LA for almost a decade, but my accent is still there”, Patrick said and then took a sip of wine. “Usually only comes out when I drink.”
“What’s up with the wine? You become a snob or something out there?”
“Ex-girlfriend. Jill took me to Napa a lot and it kinda grew on me. Before her I just drank beer and shots.”
Sonja brushed her fingers across Patrick’s hand and said, “Mr. Fucking Napa, what’s wrong with beer and shots?”
Back in 1984 Patrick sat behind Sonja in homeroom, and would stare at the outline of her black bra under her shiny white blouse. Thinking of that caused a bead of sweat to run down his back. The waitress appeared and Patrick ordered two beers and two shots of whiskey.
“Look at you go,” Sonja said while glancing at the door.
“When you emailed me back,” Patrick said, “you really didn’t say much about yourself.”
“Was surprised as shit to hear from you. What do you want to know? I’m a dental hygienist. Exciting, huh?”
When the waitress returned, Patrick noticed the tiny rose tattoo on Sonja’s left arm. He hoisted his shot and his companion did the same. Patrick scrunched his face after downing the whiskey, while Sonja didn’t flinch.
“Flannigan told me he ran into you a few months ago,” Sonja said. “Said you looked the same, just a little heavier. Same for all of us I guess. Said ya were moving back home.”
“Was interviewing for a job when I saw Flannigan. Got hired as a producer at WGBH. It’s the PBS station in Boston.”
“I know what it is. Sesame Street and the Electric Company and Mister Fucking Rogers. I got a kid, remember. What happened with your ex?”
“I proposed, she said no. Jill’s still in LA.”
“That’s a kick to the nuts.”
“One way to put it. How about you?”
“Was married for a couple years in my mid 20’s,” Sonja said and then looked again toward the door. “Total asshole, of course. Since the divorce a few dickhead boyfriends.”
Patrick felt the alcohol creating a warm glow in his head. It had started to rain, and he listened to it plink against the window. He looked outside, enjoying how the streetlights illuminated the glistening parking lot.
“When Flannigan gave me your email address I wasn’t even sure you’d remember me,” he said.
“I’m not fucking senile. Shit, when I told Ally I was gonna see you, she wanted to come real bad. Couldn’t get a sitter.”
“Ally used to pull the back of my nylon pants and snap the elastic in homeroom,” Patrick said.
“Ally got such a kick out of teasing you. You were cute, with the feathered hair and dark eyes and nice legs. And you were so shy, such a goody-goody. Remember that song? Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?”
“That night I was drinking,” Patrick said.
The waitress walked by and he ordered another round of shots and beers.
“Were we really thirteen?” Sonja asked.
“Going on fourteen. Different time now.”
“I’d kill my son if he did that. Drinking and smoking at that age.”
“I only drank,” Patrick said. “But you were so cool cause you smoked. I remember tasting cigarettes when we kissed.”
“No, it was something new, something . . . don’t think I can explain it right.”
“Your fling with a bad girl,” Sonja said.
The rain now drummed louder against the window as Patrick and Sonja stared into each other’s eyes. Patrick blinked after only a few seconds, and tried to take a sip from his empty glass. He finally looked out the window. The cocktail waitress placed the new round of shots and beers on the table, and Patrick continued looking through the smudged fingerprints on the window. He watched the rain strike the docked boats under the harbor lights. It now sounded as if a river were running in the parking lot.
Patrick’s eyes drifted to the stuffed Marlin over the bar and then to the door as a man wearing a motorcycle jacket walked inside. He heard the bracelets jangle and looked at Sonja, focusing on the red flush of her cheeks. She was squinting towards the door when she downed her shot.
“I was really fucking hoping he wouldn’t show up tonight,” Sonja said after wiping her mouth. She was staring at the man in the leather jacket who had just sat at the bar. He had a tattoo of a bird on his neck and a full beard.
Patrick closed his eyes and remembered that Sonja wore flavored lip gloss the night they kissed.
“In a million years I never would have remembered what song was playing that night at Flannagan’s,” Sonja said absently while looking at the man at the bar.
“Bonnie Tyler. Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
“I’m sorry,” Sonja said and then turned towards Patrick. “My ex. I hate to do this to you, but I have to talk to him.”
Patrick picked up his shot glass, ran his finger around the rim, and then put it back on the table.
“Don’t look so sad,” she said as she got off the chair with her mug of beer. “Let’s get together some other time. It was a great dance and a great kiss way back when at Flannigan’s house. I remember it.”
Patrick closed his eyes for a second and listened to her bracelets hitting against each other as she walked away. When he opened them, Motorcycle Guy was popping some bar snacks into his mouth. Sonja sat on the stool next to him. It wasn’t just one dance and one kiss that night, Patrick wanted to yell.
Total Eclipse of the Heart was the only slow song Flannigan had, and they played it over and over on the record player as the three couples kissed in the dark. The guys took turns putting the needle at the right spot on the vinyl, the black light shining on a Led Zeppelin poster the only way to see where you were going. Patrick could still taste Sonja’s grape lip gloss and her nicotine flavored tongue. He could feel his fingers caressing her fuzzy Angora sweater. They had swayed in the dark for hours to that one song in 1984.
And then Patrick recalled the walk home with Braydan that night after the party ended. It was cold and snowing and well past their curfew. They declared they would go to the same college and always be friends. Sonja and Ally would become their girlfriends, and one day their wives.
The snow as increased in intensity as they walked home, with the thick flakes swirling under the streetlights. It seemed as if there was nobody else in the city. The snowflakes were uncountable, so vivid as they danced under the bright lights. He had held out his tongue like a child and tried to catch as many as he could. His mind back in the present, Patrick left the restaurant without looking in the direction of Sonja. Before getting inside his car, he looked up at the streetlights shining down on the parking lot. Patrick closed his eyes and held out his tongue.
Jill and I sat on the hotel patio overlooking the Yucatan Channel, inhaling the salt from the ocean and tasting the lime on the rim of our beers. The sun was everywhere, glaring off the azure water, scorching pink noses and toes, and igniting sweat on bodies that were used to winter. It was Happy Hour and we each had a bucket of Coronas in front of us. I had ordered dos cervezas, but somehow the mustachioed waiter brought three beers apiece.
“You know I’ve always wanted to see a bullfight,” I pleaded.
“Ever since reading The Sun Also Rises . . . such a cliche,” Jill said.
“It’s my favorite book.”
“Fuck Hemingway. What about the bull?” she asked.
“Do you give a shit about the thousands of cows slaughtered every day to make Big Macs? At least before the bull goes to the butcher’s table here, he’s taking part in a ritual that has been around since the Seventh Century.”
“Yah, yah, yah. You get all your opinions from novels and movies.”
“It’s supposed to be man and bull becoming one. That’s something I want to see live, in person”
“I feel sorry for you,” she said.
Jill and I had been together since sophomore year. She knew I had read The Sun Also Rises half a dozen times and I had published an essay on Death in The Afternoon in our college newspaper. But when we were booking our Spring Break trip I never revealed to here there was bullfighting in Cancun, had never brought it up until today.
When I finally told her she said, “Hemingway wrote about them in Spain.”
I had researched the Cancun bullfights in a Boston coffee shop, the snow swirling around outside the window. I was not going to let this opportunity pass. The bullfights were only held on Wednesdays, and it was Tuesday afternoon in Cancun.
Several girls in bikinis had climbed up on the bar and had begun dancing, their tanned and taut bodies gyrating to a rap song. When we had first arrived at sunrise, after we had an awful six-hour delay at Logan airport, I had gone for a swim while Jill slept. The blonde on the bar had flashed her breasts at me while I was in the water.
“Could you give me the courtesy of not starting at them while I’m right next to you,” she said.
“You wanted to come here.”
“If you mention you wanted to go to Key West one more time, I’ll strangle you. Yes, I was the one who picked Cancun.”
“If you got up they’d all be staring at you.”
Jill narrowed her eyes at me and took a sip of beer.
“If Brett Ashley lived in our times, do you think she’d be up on the bar?” she asked.
I did not answer the question.
Jill finished her beer, shoved the empty bottle back into the ice, and began drinking another. The condensation from the bottle dripped on her arm. I flagged the waiter down and ordered two shots of tequila.
“All right, if we go to your Hemingway shit we’re not going to those stupid ruins,” Jill said. “And yeah, when we watched Against All Odds, I did say it looked beautiful. But we’re seniors. This is our last Spring Break ever. I want quality time lying on the beach and I don’t want to have to drive hours in some Mexican deathtrap car to see some Incan stones."
“If you tell me they’re Mayan, I swear I’ll throw this bucket at your head. It’s March and it’s 15 degrees and snowing in Boston. I have six days in this city, and I’m going to get a tan.”
“But you’ll go to the bullfight?” I asked.
The waiter arrived with the shots. I held up mine close to Jill, and after a few seconds she clinked my glass. She flashed a faint smile and then looked at the fit guy walking past us who wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“Let’s go see the fucker get murdered,” she said.
Coming from the hotel zone, the bullring was located at the end of the strip on the left side. We were about an hour early so we stayed to the right and ambled down dusty Tulum Avenue. I couldn’t focus on the people or buildings we passed. I wanted to see that bull. So after grabbing a quick bite to eat I bought our tickets from a street vendor sitting behind a white clapboard shack with “Toro” painted in red, and we headed toward our destination.
As Jill and I turned the corner and started down Bonampak Avenue, I could see the pale maroon, stucco bullring looming over the trees and bushes that flanked either side of the structure at the end of the road. Many people streamed toward the bullring. There was a crowd at the entrance.
“It kind of reminds me of walking down Brookline Avenue to Fenway Park,” I said.
“Of course you’d say that.”
But it did feel that way. Walking with a large group, in the kind of heat and humidity you’d find on a typical August day in Boston, to watch an event steeped in history and tradition. Being outside the ring created the same type of atmosphere, one of anticipation and excitement.
“Except, instead of a homerun sailing over the Green Monster,” she said, “we’re going to watch an animal get stabbed to death with a sword.”
After traversing through the line the guy took our boletos, and I got a taste of what attending a bullfight was like during Hemingway’s time. The clay walls, the dirt floor, the pungent odor of . . .
“This place reeks of shit,” Jill said.
To reach the seats you had to walk through the actual ring where the bull would be killed. There was only reason why: they wanted you to buy things. Souvenir stands hawking anything from tacky matador hats to the kind of plastic bulls you might find in Epcot’s Spain at Disney World. My vision of Hemingway’s sacred country collapsed, replacing it was the reality of American commercialism.
“How much did you pay for these tickets?” she asked.
Cancun was a town built solely for the tourist industry, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. But the mystique of the corridas del toros and its roots in Spanish culture were enough for me to think it couldn’t be spoiled, that it was hallowed grounds and not to be corrupted.
“I’m sure Papa bought t-shirts with bulls on them when he went to Pamplona,” Jill said with a laugh.
I wanted the Hemingway adventure, and I would do my best to achieve it. If only to spite Jill. So I made a conscious decision to ignore the tourist atmosphere and concentrate on the actual bullfight.
It wasn’t easy.
Soon after the souvenir stands were dismantled inside the ring, vendors swarmed into the stands, peddling the same hokey merchandise. To make matters worse we had taken a seat on the first row on the balcony; this was a mistake because the hawkers continuously disturbed our sightline to make their rounds. I still tried to block out the rampant
commercialism. The bulls would be coming soon, and I could focus on what mattered in the ring. Besides, the crowd was more that fifty percent local, and if they could tolerate the marketing so could I.
When the opening ceremonies commenced I began to relax. A group of dancers emerged from the tunnels and launched into a routine accompanied by the frantic beating of drums. Clad in elaborate silver and gold costumes, they did a series of flips and spins that the crowd showed their appreciation through yells and applause.
After their finale a portly man, dressed in cowboy garb and wearing an enormous sombrero, did rope tricks. Big loops to small loops, he repeated the show as he glided around the bullring. From the polite claps the audience obviously preferred the dancers. Or maybe they had become restless, anxiously awaiting the bull’s entrance. They wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
The English translation, corrida de torros is bullfight, but aficionados will tell you that is a misnomer. They feel uncomfortable calling it a fight because it isn’t a pugilistic affair at all. I read aloud to Jill from the program.
“The bullfight is actually moving art. A man using his courage, risks life to create art.”
“When are we actually going to see the bull?” Jill asked. “I’m hungover as shit and I don’t think I’m going to last too long here.”
I shrugged and focused on the ring. After waiting a couple of minutes and enduring several sighs from Jill, the bull arrived. It bolted out of the box and darted into the center of it. Long horns, expansive hump, and from the haughtiness he displayed by stopping directly in the middle of the spectacle, this guy had determination. Shouts of “toro, toro, toro” rang down in appreciation. It was almost as if the bull was playing with us when he refused to charge, opting instead for the dramatic pause. We waited anxiously for the beast to make a move.
If you blinked, you would have missed it. With breathless agility, the bull shot at one of the banderlillos, the matador’s assistants who play an important part later on in the ceremony. The young man had been yelling at the animal, and wanting to see his next paycheck, he quickly hopped over the partition to safety. Never breaking stride, the bull turned as if on skates and charged at another banderillo, who followed in his partner’s path.
I was completely enthralled, and even Jill watched intently. The bull had enticed us into his world, given us a rush; everything else, spring break, girls in bikinis, margaritas on the beach, the cheap souvenirs, receded. That is why I was so disturbed by the voice. It came across the speakers and radiated, in English, throughout the ring. It told us the next stage of the event was ready, and then proceeded to explain what would happen.
I was annoyed, but not surprised, that they’d have an announcer to hold the tourist’s hand. For someone who had no clue, it was probably a good thing. But for the person who had done their homework, someone who came to witness “moving art”, the voice was an intrusion. I could only imagine what the locals thought. Maybe they found the announcer amusing. Maybe they didn’t understand a word he said. At this point I didn’t care. Blocking out the distractions was effort enough.
So there was the announcer, telling the crowd what was coming next. Because of Hemingway, I already knew. After showcasing the bull, it was now time for the picadors to work on the bull. Riding horseback, the pic’s job is to weaken the bull by jabbing it in the back with a long spear. Their task is vital, for if a bull isn’t slowed down the matador cannot make his exciting passes. In addition to their practical function, the picadors also serve as a test for the bull: one that determines if he has courage.
“If the bull runs from the picador’s stab, he has demonstrated his gentleness,” I read from the program to Jill. “But if he charges the horse and doesn’t retreat, he demonstrates his breeding and courage.”
Jill had her head in her hands, her eyes closed.
“I don’t think I can watch the horse part,” she said.
The instant the two picadors emerged (one on a white horse and the other on a black one), the bull shot at the light colored stallion. Along with most everybody else, I winced when the bull rammed the unsuspecting horse into the wall. Reading Hemingway had somewhat prepared me, but deep inside it still hurt.
“Don’t look at the horses after the bull hits them,” was what Jake told Brett in the novel. “Watch the charge and see the picador try and keep the bull off.”
I heeded this advice and inspected the picador’s futile attempt to keep the bull away. But el toro was intent on knocking the man off the horse, and succeeded in five seconds. This was the only time I was glad it wasn’t like Pamplona in the 1920s. Because if it was, the horse would be dead. Here, the animals were padded and the horns could not penetrate.
When a horse is felled it is the matador’s job to make the bull come at him. In Hemingway’s book, to achieve this the man only had to flick his cape. With this bull it took more. The matador had to maneuver a lot closer and yell. Eventually el toro, hungry for more damage, rushed at him. Executing a nice veronica pass, the matador led the bull into the other picador, where he could be jabbed properly.
This bull not only had courage, the beast had the intelligence to maneuver himself away the man on the horse. It took several more passes for the bull to tire, and the picador riding the black stallion finally speared him with force. But even though el toro had blood oozing from his hump, he would not capitulate the in first round.
“We’re done with the picadors,” I said to Jill. “It’s banderillos time. I think you’re going to like this.”
The second stage started, and once again Mr. Announcer explained it in English. But it was easy to forget about the intrusion here. The banderillos, the men who made their debut briefly in the onset, have the task of jabbing two barbed sticks into the bull’s hump. These guys have no weapon of defense, nobody to cover their backs. And the banderillos don’t wait for their enemy to charge and they’re always on the attack. I thought of them as the rodeo clowns of bullfighting, because they entertained and assisted the star, all the while risking their very existence.
So there was the bull, gigantic and fierce and determined to maim, and the banderillos had to one-up the animal. From the minute it charged, the crowd was behind the bull. These guys wanted to give us a reason to root for the matador.
The first bandillero was the youngest. Lithe in build, with short cropped black hair and a child’s smile, he barreled at el toro like a special team captain about to tackle a punt returner. The bull seemed to enjoy this, and galloped quickly. It was a classic game of chicken, about as fair as a scooter versus an eighteen wheeler. Just as the bull was about to maul his prey, the young man sidestepped and thrust his instruments at the bull’s hump.
Somewhere in the blur I saw the sticks graze the animal and tumble on the dirt. Looking dejected the bandillero shook his head, jogged to the edge of the ring, and leapt over the wall. Although he failed, the audience clapped for the effort.
I heard Jill mutter, “snoozeville”.
The next two bandilleros were older and heftier, but each had to be inspired by their younger peer. They ran directly toward the bull and each connected with good placements of the sticks. The momentum had now swung back to the matador.
I looked at Jill, and she was lying back against the concrete abutment and letting the sun tan her face. She might have even been asleep. The third act was set to commence and I turned my head to the ring.
Any high I got from the banderillos evaporated when I inspected the bull. The black beast, once so full of energy and life, was now weary and listless. His expansive hump was stained red.
Except this part was what I had been waiting most for, the matador’s cape work. I wanted to see if the man moved in the terrain of the bull, or if he faked danger by staying in his own. The matador positioned himself and then proceeded to conduct his passes. I studied carefully, enjoying the fluttering of the red silk.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t feel any emotion for the bull or the man. It was kill time, and it felt anti-climatic. Regardless of whose terrain he was in, I did not feel that the matador was risking his life for artistic expression.
As for the bull, there was no sorrow because I had accepted his demise from the beginning. These two participants were simply finishing what they started in a perfunctory manner. I just wanted it to end.
When the bugles sounded and the announcer told us it was now “the moment of truth”, Jill sat up and opened her eyes. Upon seeing the bull, she muttered “what the fuck” and shoved me. Jill turned her back to the ring.
“The bull is a bloody fucking mess,” she said. “It’s literally the most disgusting I’ve ever seen, and the fact that you wanted to come here really is a big turnoff.”
“Your aversion to culture is a big turnoff.”
When the person in the tight costume drove his sword into the creature it seemed contrived. His movements weren’t smooth, they were over emphasized. The bull staggered, his tongue draped over his mouth, and then collapsed with a thud to the cheer of the crowd.
Jill stood up, averting her eyes from the ring.
“You saw it, now let’s go.”
“There’s two more bulls,” I said.
“Not for me.”
She strode calmly away, her bikini top visible under her diaphanous sun dress. Several men watched her head toward the exit. I stood up, but Jill never looked back at me. After a few seconds I stretched and sat back down.
I stayed and watched two more bulls get killed that afternoon. All that blood had affected me, and I when walked out of the bullring with the rest of the crowd I felt a slight buzz in my head. It was almost like the feeling I had after chewing some tobacco as a kid.
Back at the hotel Jill was sitting at the bar, drinking a beer and laughing with a group of Spring Breakers. The bartender had just poured shots, and they all toasted and sucked them down. A man with a dark tan and perfect abs put his hand on Jill’s shoulder, but drew it away when he saw me approach.
“Did it live up to your expectations?” she asked when I reached the bar.
“Just like Hemingway,” I said.