Juan was driving his pick-up, I was on the passenger side, and Isabel was in the back seat. The stick shift rattled between Juan and me. Juan had met us at the international airport in Montevideo and was taking us to his farm near the sea, a vacation that Isabel had pestered me into taking after three months of rattling on about how nice it would be for me to finally visit her home country and meet her oldest and dearest friend. The first thing I had noticed about Juans truck, besides the winch on the back, was its dull, dark green color. The first thing Juan noticed about me, by the way he looked me up-and-down at the airport, was my clothes--an Army jacket, Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes--the same easy-going style that Isabel always said a man in his late thirties was too old to wear.
The back seat was a small pad bolted to the front seats, and it was barely big enough for one adult, maybe two children, yet the way Isabel was sitting closer to Juans side of the cab, she made it look larger. She was leaning so that her left elbow was resting on the back of Juans seat, her forearm pressing against his shoulder. They spoke English at first, but when I tried to jump into the conversation, they fell into their native language, Spanish. I was just learning to speak Spanish, and had only memorized a few nouns and phrases. Isabels vocal tones rose and fell. Juan occasionally regarded me out of the corner of his eye and laughed. I glared at Isabel. Blood rushed to my face. I turned and looked out the passenger side window and watched some cows as they looked dumbly at our passing vehicle. The long lines of trees used as windbreaks between the plots of farm land were losing the last of their brown, curling leaves. I felt the onset of a headache and squeezed my thighs with my hands, imagining I was holding onto someones throat.
When we arrived at Juans farm, I was still staring out the window. I had been thinking about the conversation that Isabel and I had a few months back, when she first told me about Juan. "He moved away from the city and settled on the land he inherited from his father," she said. "Built his own house, with his own two hands. Bought a few cows and now he's got a whole herd. Plowed up half of the land and planted beans, right before the bean market skyrocketed. Wait til you see his house," she said. "Its beautiful. He works wonderfully with his hands."
Juans house was finished on the outside with oak-wood slats, and on the north side there was a spacious sun room faced in large rectangular glass panels. Inside, the sun room blended smoothly into the living room. The furniture was rustic but rich--large hand-carved wooden furniture that reeked of Spanish colonialism. Above the fireplace, there was a painting of an elderly man who had a J.P. Morgan stare. At the bottom of the picture was a gold engraved plaque that read, Soltero Juan Ladrón de Guerra. "My Grandfather," said Juan. On the mantel in front of and next to the painting was a bronze statue of a conquistador. Above a desk on the far side of the room was a coat of arms. Hanging on all the walls were horse whips and riding crops.
Juan said we could have his room upstairs, since it had a larger bed, and he would take the guest room at the end of the hallway under the stairs. While I set our suitcases in the bedroom, next to an antique four poster bed, I noticed Isabel casually take a candy from a jar on the nightstand.
Juan started to grill us lunch. "From one of my steers," he said. "Cured by a neighbor of mine." He seared the slab of beef on a grill he had placed over the fireplace. Isabel went into the kitchen to get something, and Juan followed her, giving me instructions to "Keep an eye on the meat." Instead, I followed them, trying to pick up a few words of their conversation. They glanced at me then back at each other.
We sat down at the kitchen table while Isabel and Juan kept yakking away in Spanish. Isabel sat between Juan and me, her body twisted in his direction as she spoke. My headache was turning into a full-fledged migraine. Juan got up to check on the meat and Isabel got up to get the plates. I reached for the large wooden pepper shaker that sat in the middle of the table and felt the heft of its weight as Isabel laid out the plates. She laid my plate last. "Why dont you ever help?" she whispered at me.
Juan brought in the meat. "This is the cut we call tapa," he said. "Do you want a cut from the large end, where it is tender and juicy, or do you want a cut from the small end where it is tough and hard, the part the real men eat." Isabel watched for my reaction. Juan smiled at me. I narrowed my eyes and ordered a piece that the real men eat. Even though they were still speaking Spanish, I could tell that the conversation had turned to the subject of Laura, Isabels daughter by a former marriage. Laura was an beautiful, agitated bundle of post-adolescent hormones that deftly managed, at least once a day, to get either Isabel angry at me, or me angry at Isabel. She had elected to stay home with the housekeeper, cook, gardener, and private tutor to study for her college entrance exams while we went on vacation. I cant say I was disappointed.
"Juan was there when Laura was born," Isabel said in English.
"Yes. I called her the little princess," Juan said.
"Thats exactly what I always say," I exclaimed. "Shes like a princess. And Isabel is like a queen."
"Where does that leave you?" Juan said. "Are you the servant?"
This time I looked at Isabel for her reaction. She was staring down at her plate, watching her knife cut through a fat piece of meat. Juan laughed. I glared at him and abruptly pushed myself from the table. I went outside and had a smoke on the back porch. This was going to be the last time, I thought to myself.
I noticed Juan had a barn a hundred feet or so from the house. Funny I hadnt seen it when we came in, it being so obvious, situated among some trees, dark cement gray with two huge wooden front doors. The doors were shut and above them yawned an open hay-loft window. I crushed my cigarette out with the sole of my shoe. Next to the front doors and leaning against the wall of the barn was a pitchfork. Just as I was going to walk over to it, Isabel came outside. She took my hand. "Lets go take a nap, she said."
"Im not tired."
"The bed is very big and comfortable," she said, pressing her breasts into my arm, "And Juan has some errands to run. We have the entire afternoon to ourselves."
I followed her back into the house. Juan was cleaning the fireplace as we went up the stairs. He watched Isabels backside as she walked in front of me.
When I woke up, I was alone. I opened the bedroom window and saw them walking toward the truck. They had their backs to me and Juan had his arm around her neck while Isabel rested her head upon his shoulder. They were walking slowly and Juan seemed to be speaking rather softly. I flew down the stairs and stepped out the back door just as they were arriving at the truck. I let the screen door slam shut.
"My love," Isabel said as she skipped towards me. Her blouse was open to the fourth button. I stared intently at Juan. He was mocking me with his eyes.
"You are awake," he said.
"Yes, I am. And it seems to be just in time."
"Oh, you mean to come with us, Isabel said. We were just going to pick up Juans kids. They live only ten minutes away."
"Thats okay, Juan said. I can go alone. There's coffee on the fireplace if you want some." He got in his truck and drove off, the winch on the back rattling and bobbing back and forth.
"Love, are you okay? You have a terrible look on your face."
I lit a cigarette. "Where were you going?"
"To pick up his kids," I told you.
"Why didnt you wake me?"
"You were sleeping so well. Besides, Juan needed to speak. He feels comfortable speaking to me. Were old friends, you know that. He wanted to talk about his divorce. Hey, wait a minute, what are you insinuating?" She put her hands on her hips. I could see her bra and cleavage.
"Why didnt he invite both of us to go with him?"
"Because there are three kids and the cab would be full. Youre being ridiculous." She slipped inside the back door. I stayed on the porch and finished my smoke. Then I went for a walk.
After a walk around the barn, where I noticed the front doors were padlocked, I went back inside the house. Isabel was lying on a hammock in the sun room. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa. She leaned over and looked at me. The back door opened and three kids piled in, howling and yelling. They ranged in ages from three to eight.
"Lets go to the beach, Juan said."
"Its almost winter, I said. Dont you think its a bit nippy for a swim?"
"Were not going to swim, just have a picnic. The waves are beautiful to see crashing on the shore this time of year. Theyre about five or six feet tall."
The kids were running around the house and jumping up and down on the sofa. "Isnt it going to be crowded in the cab?" I asked.
"Well, I have a suggestion. Isabel says you like to ride motorcycles." My mind escaped to thoughts of my Harley--that black and white Sporster that occasionally freed me from the stagnation of my marriage. He continued, "Well, I have a motocross bike. You can follow us. If you wear a sweater under your coat you'll be fine."
The road was overgrown with grass, but if I stayed in the wheel ruts, it was easy to ride on. I actually started to feel good after a mile or two. The sun was out, the wind was in my face, the briskness of the air incredibly invigorating. I started singing a song by Steppenwolf. "Get your motor running, head out on the highway, looking for adventure, in what ever comes our way. . . Born to be wi-ii-ii-ii-ld. Born to be . . ."
After a meal of chicken sandwiches and red wine, and an afternoon of watching the kids build sand castles, then watching the sand castles get destroyed by the crashing waves, we headed back. Since I knew the way, I ventured out in front of the truck. I lost sight of them over some rolling hills, but I didnt care, I had my freedom again--the open road, the scenery passing by, the wind combing my hair and caressing my body through my clothes. When I saw the house loom up ahead of me, I slowed down. I looked over my shoulder. I slowed down some more. I stopped. I rode to the top of a knoll and scanned the road to the beach. The truck was nowhere to be seen. I rode all the way back to the beach. Nothing. I returned to the house at full throttle. When I arrived, the sun was setting.
Around midnight, I heard the truck pull up and the doors slam shut. I went to the back porch with my hand around the neck of a bottle of wine I had found in the kitchen.
"Mi amor, how are you?" Isabel asked me. "Sorry, we had a flat tire. Her hair was mussed."
I went back to find you.
"Juan interrupted, Sorry Jim, we took a different route. To drop off the kids."
I lit a cigarette.
"Lets go to bed, love, Isabel said to me. Its late. She put her hand over mine, the one that gripped the wine bottle.
In the bedroom I confronted her. "Did the flat tire happen before or after you dropped off the kids?"
"She looked at me condescendingly. "Your petty jealousies belittle you. You have no right to speak to me like that. Juan is my friend. Whatever fantasy youve concocted in your mind is purely fictional. Besides, you know how I feel about infidelity."
"Yeah, I know how you feel about infidelity. The same way you always feel about it. The way you feel about it every time we go on a vacation together. The way you feel about it every time we meet someone new. Even the way you feel about it with all of our friends back home." She stormed out of the room. I picked up the jar of candy and smashed it on the floor.
I sat on the bed and looked at the grass stains on my tennis shoes. After a few moments, I got up, went down the stairs, through the living room, and into the kitchen. I couldn't find Isabel or Juan, so I walked, quite quickly, under the stairs and into the hallway that led to the guest room. I found the door closed. I pressed my ear to the door. Silence. Too much silence. A light shone from under the door and onto my feet. A double shadow passed by the light. I grabbed the door knob and drove my shoulder into the door, bursting into the room.
No one was there. A window a few feet from the unmade bed was open a couple of inches and its curtain fluttered in the breeze. The lamp between the bed and the window was on and the curtain periodically passed in front of it.
I paused for a moment, then went through the kitchen and out the back door. The moon was full and the sky was clear, giving the outdoors the appearance of a silvery low-lit day. I could see the hills I had ridden upon earlier that day. A cold wind was blowing. The wild grass in the field next to the house rippled in the breeze. The main doors to the barn stood slightly ajar, and I watched as a white owl circled the barn twice then entered through the hay-loft window. I glanced at the pitchfork where now it leaned within arms reach against the side of the house. The truck, its exterior looking black and shiny, its chrome bumpers reflecting the moon, sat pointed in the direction of the road that led to the airport. The skin on the back of my neck burned and my scalp tingled as I stepped off the porch and walked up to the drivers side. Its keys dangled brightly in the ignition. I looked again at the dark slit made by the opening of the barn doors, over at the pitchfork, around at the hills, the wild grass, the road. The wind picked up and whistled in my ears.