"The Peninsula of Happiness" by Kasia Juno
2017 CBC Short Story Prize finalist
Warning: This story contains graphic language
The year my mother lost her job she took me to Mexico on vacation. This would be the last trip we would take together, even the last time we would spend an extended period of time together, although neither of us knew it yet. We'd been having a hard time, the two of us, and I suspected that this was the reason for the trip. I am not your mother, she said as we boarded the plane. From now on, or at least for the next two weeks, I'm your friend.
Having grown up landlocked in western Canada, the Pacific was foreign to me. It was the largest ocean, my mother explained, covering 46 per cent of the planet, although you wouldn't guess it by looking out of our hotel window. From here the ocean was a decisive slit of blue that disappeared as soon as the sun went down. Like a painted eyelid, I thought, shutting out the world, leaving us in blackness. Every morning I climbed to the roof of the hotel. From up there the ocean seemed to surround me, eroding the sandbar on which the town had been built. Later I would find out that the town was named after the sandbar, Barra de Felicidad, the "Peninsula of Happiness."
One of the great regrets of my mother's life was that she had never lived near the ocean. While on our trip, she spent her mornings lying on the beach, stretched out in a green bikini. In the evenings she conversed with strangers in the nearby bars, her bikini straps poking out under her shirt. I occasionally joined her at the bar and ordered sweet fizzy Mexican sodas, which stained my tongue and the corners of my mouth. Sometimes I would read, waiting for her to grow tired of talking and ask me if I would like to try the flan at the night market or simply if I wanted to go home. By home she meant the hotel, where we would sit on the floor in her room and eat peaches and white bread or whatever her diminishing savings could provide.
One evening my mother fell into conversation with a man from Colorado, a professional horse trainer. His dark shoulder length hair was pulled back in a man bun, revealing what I later found out are known as widow's peaks. His wife had left him earlier that year. It seemed like everyone on the Peninsula of Happiness was looking for something or someone. He offered my mother something in the hollow of his palm. She shook her head, smiling. I have my daughter with me, she said and nodded to where I sat reading, or pretending to read, at the far end of the bar. He looked over at me and I could feel the pressure of his gaze, the soft heat of it, which I suppose my mother felt as well. Except I knew she welcomed it, the rare warmth of a man's attention. He turned back to her and I heard her voice, happy, higher than usual, as they continued their discussion of horses. He told her how you could tell a horse's temperament by the colour of its coat. Appaloosas, I heard him say, do not recognize their own shadows.
On New Year's Eve I accompanied my mother to a salsa club. People are wretched on the last night of the year, she warned me. They're still hoping for a miracle. I noticed that she had painted her nails.
Men circled us, oily-haired, their skin greenish under the lights. Some of them wore cowboy hats, or garlands of beads and flowers in accordance with the island party theme, even though we weren't on an island, but rather a peninsula. I pointed this out to my mother but she wasn't listening. She pressed her bright nails against the bar and surveyed the dance floor. There were other women there too, mostly middle-aged, with perfumed hair and silver heels and large plastic pearls in their ears.
I didn't know the basic salsa step or how to move my hips in a convincing bachata, so I watched from a bar stool with an Agatha Christie novel on my lap. I watched as my mother and a much younger man moved onto the dance floor. They were holding each other closely, barely following the steps, her brilliant fingernails resting on his back. Her head was pressed against his. Her squirrely brown hair, that she complained was always too dry, fell over both their profiles. It took me some time to realize that they were kissing.
I left the bar before midnight. When I returned to the hotel I found the courtyard unlit. I closed the gate behind me and locked it. There was no one at the reception. I could make out the door at the end of the corridor and the staircase that lead to my room. I was about to head towards the stairs when I realized that I was not alone in the courtyard. Someone was standing quite close to me. As my eyes adjusted I made out the figure of a man, my height, or perhaps shorter.
I have returned to this night, trying to piece it together, his shuffling approach, his uncut beard, his eyes and mouth, identical pink slits in the dark. I didn't immediately recognize him as the man we had met earlier that week, the one with the widow's peaks. As he drew nearer I saw that he was around my mother's age, broad chested, with a wide tanned forehead. Perhaps his broadness made him seem short.
Where have you been, he said. When I didn't answer he ran a hand along my wrist. Don't you see what you're doing to me? I could feel his body's fierce heat. I stepped back but he tightened his grip on my arm, his other hand running down on my back. Where have you been all night? he demanded. There were no spaces between his words. I tried to pull away but I was frozen in place. I felt that his body was a riptide, urgent, invincible, kilometres wide. Behind the walls guests were sleeping or smoking, leaning back in pools of blue smoke, awake but not listening. In the street, dogs complained of moon sickness. Someone experienced a quiet heart attack. A glass shattered on the floor and someone stumbled towards the sink or towards the bed.
Beside the reception was a small curtained off room. In it two night watchmen played a game with coins. The purpose was to keep the coins spinning. One man kept the time, the other spun. The game was interrupted by a girl's voice, barely audible, from the courtyard. There was a long moment during which the watchmen stood in the doorway observing the couple, deciding whether or not to interfere. There was something about the composition that stirred them to recognition. The American cowboy, the girl in the ripped dress. Padding forward in white trousers, politely, discreetly, they motioned to the man. Sir? Can we help you, sir?
My room, when I finally reached it, seemed smaller. I closed the door behind me. I felt as if I were observing the tiny bed, the nightstand, my open suitcase, from a great distance away. Even my clothes, spilling out over the floor, seemed to belong to someone else. I fell on the bed and lay there in my sweat-soaked dress. By this time there was a faint light in the sky. The earth was tipping toward the New Year. This would be the year I would turn 17. I would leave home, hitchhike to the coast. I would live in a basement apartment with a man I hardly knew. I would believe that I loved him and that love was simply a unit of measurement, a way to determine the shape of a foot or a mouth, the weight of a body in the dark.
I stayed up in my hotel room, listening for my mother to come in. The sky was brightening outside. Where was she? Eventually I fell asleep and a few hours later woke to a small earthquake shaking the building. I went to her room expecting to find it empty, but she was there. She was sleeping. There was no one in the bed beside her. When I climbed onto the mattress, she stirred, said something to me and then fell back asleep. The air was already warm. I felt the hotel shifting again, almost imperceptibly, then once violently.
I remember a red sky, cloudless, taking up my entire field of vision. I recounted the last year as a series of missteps. Each was a tiny movement in the wrong direction, each leading me here, to this place, to the dark lobby and to the tidal wave which was about to break over my mother's bed, over our two sleep-heavy bodies.
My mother's eyelids twitched as if she was rehearsing for being awake. She had not removed her make up and the mascara had stained the indented webs around her eyelids. She shifted towards me and I thought she might speak but her eyes remained closed. She slept with the curtains open and the light that poured through the window was almost unbearable. It cast a bright rectangle on the floor, which inched towards us. When it made it to the bed, I got up and quickly left the room. Below in the marketplace the fruit stalls were covered in a blue tarpaulin. Dogs coiled like question marks down the centre of the street. The only evidence of the earthquake was an overturned bicycle, its wheel high in the air. I climbed to the roof as I did every morning, above the city, above the night that repeats and repeats. From up here the sea looked incredibly flat, as if it no longer contained currents or tides or anything that could betray its movement.