The Odd Difficulty of Sinking

One: Waterfall

 

Laura always feared this is how she’d lose her sister—naked, dead, floating in the same pool of water where they’d both learned to swim.  Her sister’s body wasn’t floating face up, as they had floated countless times while they were children. Face down, completely naked, Letica’s limbs moved languidly with the current from the force of the water. In the same position they found their mother when she drowned so many years ago.

It was deafening, that sound of the crashing water, and for once Laura found it soothing, how it drowned out her own voice, the hysteria that bubbled as she glanced around, yelling for someone to help. Half way through a beautifully clear day, the sun a splat of light yellow in the sky, there wasn’t even one tourist with their ridiculous sun hat and cargo short. Laura jumped in the water.

Without thinking twice of her sewn in hair-weave, the hair that had cost a year’s worth of saved wages from both her and her sister’s stash, taken without permission on a whim, Laura jumped fully-clothed in to save her sister. She grabbed Leticia’s foot, pulled hard toward the water’s edge. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” Leticia said twisting over, kicking her in the face with the free foot. Maybe by mistake.

“Thought you were dead,” Laura said, letting go the other foot immediately, touching the part of her head that had been struck–the pain there a moment and then immediately gone. Above them, a new group of twenty or so tourists all stared at the sisters, yelling excitedly at what? They must think a pre-planned entertainment. What a sight they must make. One, butt naked, short afro close to her scalp—even from far Laura was sure people could tell her sister was stunning. The other, fully clothed, with the Grand Resort’s tell-tell brilliant white kimono-inspired uniform of the entertainers, hair splayed around her like so many snakes.

“Josefina sent me to find you,” Laura continued over the crashing water. “You have to get back to work, she said.”

The two of them swam in synchrony, both making their strokes elegant, a soft line extending the full length of their bodies. From above, they heard the expected click of cameras, noted as flash ricocheted off the water’s surface.

“I’m not going back to the hotel,” Leticia said. She emerged from the water first, and, turning away from Laura, put her clothes on quickly —the same design of uniform, only hers was a light pink, the color coded so hotel people would know she was one of the babysitters. Laura noticed there was blood splatter on her sister’s shoulders, all the way down her chest.  Her sister was always getting into something stupid–blood had ruined many uniforms. But she was surprised at the small satchel she’d failed to notice. Where was her sister going?

Leticia led the way, bag over one shoulder. She headed the way only the locals knew how to leave the waterfall, through an unmarked path in the small forest. Above them, the tourists had begun their descent to the waterfall, and kept photographing the sisters, even as they disappeared into the thicket. 

“I think I killed a girl,” Leticia said, into the trees. 

Laura stopped walking. When her sister made to move on, she grabbed her forearm. Now it was her turn to apply unnecessary pressure. “What?”

Leticia spoke in a whisper, not facing Laura—still facing straight ahead. Obviously, ashamed. She told her about taking her eyes off the girl for just one moment—only one.  Then about finding the girl in a ditch; about the muddy water in said ditch because of the storm that blew through town the last few days, about Vida, the town’s curandera coming over to try to revive the little girl. The little girl failed to respond to Vida’s treatment. So, Leticia fled. She packed her bag, grabbed her passport and came to the waterfall for the last time.

“But she wasn’t dead-dead?”

Leticia shrugged.

Laura let her hand fall off her sister’s arm, thinking of what a dead American tourist child would mean to her sister, to the resort, to all of them. It felt as if oxygen was there a minute and then not. She tried to find some sky among all the high trees, force depth out of the shallow pressing on her chest. Up on one of the trees, she noticed a huge kite stuck above them and stopped. She pointed up so her sister would see it, too. It was shaped like a giant butterfly, and its colors— purple, the pale yellow of the sun, bordered with thick black lines— made sense in a strange way, surrounded by so much green. It helped her catch her breath. Some pendejo tourist likely tried to fly a kite in the middle of the forest. 

“Why were you at the waterfall?”

“I figured I’d try to sink, one last time,” Leticia said. That meant she wanted to say goodbye to their Mom. 

The sisters were quiet for a moment, thinking of the same moment when they’d come upon the floating figure, how pretty all the hair, slithering because of the pressure of the water, like snakes. How neither of them had jumped in, terrified. 

“You got enough money to get away?” 

Her sister shrugged. That meant some, but not enough. “I’ll drive you to town,” Laura said, understanding the best she could do for her sister was let her go, not ask any more questions, not waste any more time, not apologize for spending all their savings on a 100% guaranteed Indian temple hair extension.

 

Two: Octopus

 

Thirty minutes later, the sisters were on the outskirts of the town. Leticia understood her sister couldn’t risk being seen dropping her off.  Her sister pulled the car over and parked. Leticia got out of the car, slammed the door.  On the silver handle, the cold imprint of her fingerprints slowly disappeared. Outside, the heat of the day stunned them into another momentary silence. 

They were surrounded by ocean cliffs, fluffy, pretty clouds, and some lazy goats that roamed the road from the town to the resort, fed and left to wander for the startled delight of tourist children. Leticia had often taken the kids in her charge down this hill when the activities in the kids’ club became so unbearable she had to get away.

The walk from the resort to the town would be all downhill from here, and the block of light that hovered over the ocean was gorgeous, even on this day. She noticed a single dark cloud among all the pretty, fluffy ones, and thought that was ridiculous too, because just then she felt a seed she recognized as dread in her body that told her more horror was on the way.

“Apologize,” Laura said, pushing her cell phone half-heartedly in Leticia’s direction.

“I just kept remembering,” Leticia said, smacking her sister’s phone away, “how much time we wasted as kids trying to sink.” 

Leticia wasn’t thinking of her dead mother. She was thinking how the deepest part of the waterfall’s pool was at least thirty feet. Because of the force of the water descending from such enormous heights, it was impossible to sink, no matter the tricks they’d tried. Jumping in with a huge rock, pushing the other down with all one’s strength.

Laura’s jaw hardened. Leticia could tell she wanted something else from her. What? There, a vein on the side of Laura’s neck, swelled about to pop. “We should head back. You don’t even know what happened to the girl. She might be fine. Josefina might let it go.”

Josefina would certainly not let this go. Nope. Once, Leticia’d lost a toddler and it’d taken hours to find her, scared in Pablo’s fishing boat – knotted up in his nets. Another time, she’d lost track of a pair of twins at the cafeteria, and of course, they’d both gone directly for the absurd display of sushi, shrimp scampi, crabs, lobsters. One had grabbed the head of a giant purple octopus, placed it on his head like a hat, and grabbed a puckered, tentacle as a mustache, slipping the tip in his mouth – only to have his throat close instantly, face turning the deep blue of the sea she stared at right now. They’d had the epi pin handy, nothing to see here—kid’s skin had rosied up so nicely. Each time, Josefina told Leticia to stop the fuckery with the pills, that one of these days the mistake would be too big.

And so, here was the day.

Leticia bit the inside of her cheek. She could still taste the sweetness of blood on her tongue. She’d been careful to remain in profile—Josefina had swung the heel of her shoe into her face so quickly Leticia hadn’t had time to put her hand up. She was grateful the pill she’d swallowed hours earlier had made it all feel like a tingle of a foot falling asleep. Josefina had seemed out of control, spinning as Vida failed to inject life into the grey-faced child.

Now, the numbing sensation on her face faded with the warmth of the bright sun. She convinced herself it was a minor inconvenience, that throbbing cheek. She’d been careful not to catch the reflection of herself on the rearview mirror as they drove—no use worrying about her face on top of everything else. She focused on her sister’s weave. The difference in texture was visible from the kinky roots of Laura’s natural hair to the smooth, plastic-like straightness of the extensions, knotting from the swimming. She’d have to get conditioner on fast, comb it through before it dried, or it would be ruined, irredeemable. 

“Listen,” Leticia said, “that hair was expensive. Real expensive. I’m going to get in touch as soon as I find a place to land. Don’t worry about me.”

Laura’s shoulders sagged, and so Leticia knew it was finished, this debate. Laura finally gave in with her eyes, too, and Leticia followed her line of vision all the way to the waves as they crashed against some rocks, not altogether different from what foamed from the waterfall, which also splashed all the way up to heaven. 

Did Laura get they’d never see each other again? The way she went inside the car, and roughly made a broken U-turn, said no, her sister thought this was just another stunt Leticia was pulling. She hadn’t even bothered with a hug, or a wave of her hand, as she headed back to the resort, to comb out the hair.

Leticia told herself to stop worrying about her sister’s hair; it was an absurd thing to worry about, under the circumstances. It was silly for her to have the last moment she spent with her sister be knotted up in how happy she’d been when she’d had the hair put in, how she’d twirled at Leticia’s outrage of spending all their money on it. How she’d tried not to cry when her sister told her she’d never felt that beautiful, not once. How the hair made her look just like their mom. She had to focus on getting the hell out of town. The fact she hadn’t seen an ambulance, that Josefina hadn’t tried her cell phone or checked in with her sister, told her she only had a couple of hours to get away. A mess like the one she’d made could only be fixed by making an example out of the help. She’d be damned if she’d willingly become the subject of anyone’s lesson on neglect. Fuck that.

There was only one place where she could get money fast, and so she headed over, sure one way or another, the way ahead would emerge. 

 

Three: The Gringo Trap

 

Tourists weren’t used to a whore house quite like The Gringo Trap, at least, that’s what they always said to Leticia. She’d been making a commission on the side, bringing the men—hard working, dedicated fathers who always discreetly asked her, within a day of meeting her, if she might know, where, ahem, they could meet a nice local girl, a clean girl, who’d be discreet and lacking in attachment or expectations beyond a fun afternoon. Claro que si, Leticia would say, she had a best friend who fit that exact description, who she may or may not be able to get to meet them on account of how busy she was studying in university at the cusp of becoming a teacher, or a nurse, or an attorney. But! This friend, she did have a side hustle, working as a snorkeling instructor if the Dad was interested in taking a class. Leticia couldn’t make any promises, because there had to be genuine chemistry, true attraction, but if yes, a good time would be had by all. Ok? 

Dads were always surprised, so surprised, especially because The Gringo Trap, a beachside bar decorated with seashells and colorful bar stools boasted a pay-as-you-wish menu, inclusive of the freshest catch of the day cooked simply with lime, salt and pepper, homemade Mamajuana potent beyond proof, made all the more so by the tree bark Mama Juana—the owner—shaved  off her own trees, grown in her own finca ten miles away. Leticia was always careful to explain no money was to exchange hands, not directly to her close friend, who would be so offended to think an amorous afternoon with a private snorkeling client had been a transaction. Put what you wish on the tip jar, Leticia would say, absentmindedly pointing in the direction of an old tin can.

Today, Juana hollered relief. “Jesus sent you,” she yelled as she waved Leticia over to the inside of the bar, not taking in her sad expression or the small traveling bag. She quickly begged her to tend the bar, because she had to rush to find out what happened to the last college student-turned snorkeling instructor, because she’d been gone way past the allowed two-hour tour. “Don’t let my girls swim,” Juana said, over her shoulder, jumping on a jet ski, “I just did their hair.”

Leticia thought about Jesus, sending her to tend a quiet bar when she had only a few hours to spare. She looked out onto the road, expecting a police car, or her sister, to drag her back to the resort, to pay for her mistake.

The girls Juana mentioned were her daughters, a ten-year-old and a nine-year-old, whose dark skin and pale eyes said they, too, had been a product of a snorkeling adventure for Juana, back when she conducted tours herself.

Leticia was grateful the bar was empty. She had to ask herself some hard questions before deciding. Would today be the day she’d sleep with a man for money? Or, could she persuade Juana to lend her the money to get away? She checked her cell phone, opened the Facebook app and scrolled through the posts of the women she’d helped along the way. These were the women who had seen the gringos as a way out of a life of servitude, who had said, yes, I will sleep with you, visitor, I will take your money and leave this place and make my own life. Leticia had never been seriously tempted to do so but once. For the last five years, she’d asked herself questions she figured everyone must ask themselves: what did she want out of this life? She’d been convinced she was happy with her simple life, with her sister watching out for her while she watched out for her sister, in her own way. If she was completely honest, she’d childishly thought she couldn’t leave this plot of land without first defeating the waterfall—without first figuring out the trick to sinking—thought it might help her understand something about her drowned mother.

Today, she told herself, the mystery no longer mattered. No matter how hard she’d tried to conjure it otherwise, the dead stayed dead. If she could get herself to Spain, or Italy, she’d be able to make a different life. She knew among the dozens of women she’d seen leave, there would be help.

She took a dirty rag and wiped the water spots on the bar. She reassembled the few souvenirs Juana placed within arm’s reach so the dedicated fathers would have a token of thoughtfulness to take back—there a coral necklace, there a faceless ceramic doll, there a t-shirt with the words Paradise is the Dominican Republic above a sunset, a tiny island floating with sea, sun and sand. She served herself a drink of the dark rum and set it on the bar. A few flakes of tree bark rested on the surface and she stuck her index in it, hooked them up, licked them off.

Leticia went into the bathroom, a tiny room Juana didn’t allow anyone else to use, and changed into a light dress she found, hanging on a rusty nail. It had huge pockets, and she imagined Juana, at the end of each shift, giving money to each girl, keeping most if it for herself. It would be better if anyone who wondered over didn’t see the uniform, with the blood stains. It would be better for her to make this decision sober—before it had to be made. She confronted her reflection—pleased by the wooden boards allowing pretty sunlight across her face. The injury on her cheek had disappeared. It was the size of a dime, at most, reddish but not crusted, not ruptured like cut skin. Swimming in the waterfall had helped clean, then sealed it. If she put coconut oil on it, each night before sleep, she could tell it would leave no scar.

As she changed, she heard the sound of Juana’s girls running and laughing somewhere upstairs, the beach house that was above the bar. She leaned against a wall, and told herself, yes, today would be the day she would sleep with a man for money. But how many times? Would there be enough clients for her to make enough money for the thousands of pesos she’d need for a same day plane ticket? 

When she emerged, a man was sitting at the bar. He turned and smiled at her. Oh. The father of the girl she’d left for dead back in the resort. He was shirtless, his blond hair shining white in the sunlight. She couldn’t say a word, couldn’t move, and only looked around, trying to locate his wife, or Josefina with the police at her heels.

“Hi,” he said, “what an awesome bar!”

He clearly did not recognize her.  She’d been caring for his child for the last nine days. Tomorrow, they were set to leave, first thing in the morning. 

Snapping out of it, she forced the words out, mimicking the way Juana greeted all who sat at the bar. “What can I do you for, handsome?”

 “Three shots of Mama Juana on ice,” he said. He turned to face the ocean. He sighed deeply, the way they all did—a way that said, look at all this paradise. “Your English is very good,” he said, turning back to Leticia, smiling even wider. He had said this exact same thing to her on the first day they met. She stared at him, waiting to see if he was playing a trick on her.

“I was born in Boston,” she said, lying. Tourists didn’t like hearing children in the town adjacent to the Grand Resort learned English before they learned Spanish. 

“No wonder you left that shit show for this,” he said. 

She served the man his drink. She picked up her drink and they both said cheers. She sipped while he took a huge gulp. His hands were so big. She wondered if he would be rough, violent. If a price tag wasn’t placed on this kind of service, the amount of money a man gave as tip said everything there was to know about what he thought your body was worth. What would this man think her body was worth? The one time Leticia had been tempted to try making some fast money at the Gringo Trap, Juana had told her it wasn’t always unpleasant, this work. The entire time, she’d been looking at her girls, with the tenderness of someone with no regrets.

The single dark cloud in the sky reached the beach, and though the sun could be seen through it, a localized rain storm started quickly right above the bar. Juana’s girls rushed down the stairs, into the rain shower, wearing nothing but bathing suit bottoms.  Their hair identical, two huge gorgeous hair puffs on either side of each head. They ran back and forth on the beach, to the part where it rained, and then to the part where it was sunny. That hair style was exactly the way her mother used to do hers and Laura’s hair. 

“No swimming,” Leticia said to the girls in Spanish, when she noticed they were getting closer to the crashing waves.

The man finished his drink. He placed the glass silently on the bar. Asked her for another one. He waited until her back was turned, and spoke softly. 

“I heard there are special snorkeling tours,” he said. 

“Yes,” Leticia said. There was something sticky on the inside of her throat. For a moment, she thought her wound had begun bleeding again. She was careful not to touch her face. “I can take care of you.”

“If I wanted something a bit more unusual,” the man started, then, turning his attention to Leticia, let his words trail off.  He turned his attention back to the girls, as they ran back and forth.

“Which one,” Leticia asked, as if this was no big deal. As if men came, and asked to have sex with young girls, all the time.

“Both,” he said. 

“I’m afraid it’s very expensive,” she said. She remembered the tenderness with which Juana had looked at her daughters, one ten years old, the other nine years old, telling her sometimes a mistake didn’t turn into regret. “Neither has ever been touched.”

The man took his fanny pack, unzipped it, removed his rental car keys placing them on the side of the bar, and then went on to count ten thousand dollars, in hundred dollars bills. “Would that be enough? Or should I get more?”

Leticia looked at the stacks of American dollars, then at the man. She’d never seen that much money. His eyes were glazed over, in a familiar feverish way—and she knew he was still high. Maybe high enough he’d fall asleep before too much damage was done? Out in the ocean, there was no sign of Juana’s jet ski, or the girl who’d been gone for too long. Behind them, on the road, no sirens, no Josefina, no Laura wagging a finger at her, telling her she’d pull the last stunt of her life with the tourist girl. Not Juana’s girls. Reminding her it was ok, not to care so much for these fucking gringos, but for the locals—there was nothing but care. On the beach, the rain finally stopped. The girls came over to the bar, and sat on stools on either side of the man. These girls were used to compliments. They sat next to this man, smiling, transfixed by the money.

Leticia noticed how the hair puffs on both girls had remained dry – maybe because of the back and forth on the beach. Several drops of rain stood perfectly undisturbed in strands of kinky hair, and reflected the light from a block of sunlight that bent, impossibly, into the bar. Those drops of rain, with the light shining on and through them, were as bright as jewels on the girl’s heads. 

She reminded herself, with the beach as the backdrop, that she wasn’t responsible for anyone but herself, no matter how precious. The clouds, those fluffy, pretty ones, moved across the sky quickly. Off in the distance, she heard the sound of goats, bleating. Meehhh. Meeeh. Meeeh. She’d always loved the sound of their songs. Yet it didn’t stop her from eating their flesh.

She topped the man’s drink. Served herself a double shot of rum. Neither said cheers. The man stared at her through heavy-lidded eyes. She reminded herself, that Juana regularly had men in this bar late into the night, men who came with the intention of paying for sex, and she had her daughters one flight of stairs up, night after night. Juana got drunk in this bar, all the time. Anything could happen, at any time, in this place. 

Leticia grabbed the money, put it into the big pockets of the dress she wore. She told the man to feel free to go upstairs, to use the big bedroom. She would send the girls up. 

He left. He didn’t bother taking the fanny pack, or the car keys with him. Such arrogance, in that trust.

“Mami doesn’t like strangers in our house,” one of the girls said in perfectly unaccented English.

Leticia nodded. 

Leticia said some words to the girls. Maybe about how their mother had asked for their help, and it was important they do exactly as she said. She reminded them that as long as they were together, nothing too terrible would happen. Did they believe her? Both girls responded yes, because they’d known Leticia their entire lives, because they were still giddy from running on the beach—from this incredible miracle they’d just lived through—running through rain and sunlight at the same time.  

“Swim far,” Leticia said. “Swim as hard as you can.”

The girls nodded, and off they went, into the water, the shape of their gorgeous hair puffs there a moment, then gone forever.

Before she left, she went into the tin can, which still held hundreds of dollars of tips. She took that money, too. She went to the car. The girls were swimming hard, then, they stopped. One pushed the other. The other emerged, splashed. 

As she drove off, she couldn’t stop thinking of the drops of rain on the girl’s hair. They reminded Leticia of the kite her sister had pointed to on top of the tree, of a body floating on water, of the odd difficulty of another body, failing to sink.

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