“Where are we going?” Paul asked as the ancient public bus bumped over a particularly deep pot hole on the highway heading south of Zihuatanejo.
“Cooking with Carmen,” I read off the itinerary. (I make one for every trip).
“And, where did you find out about this class?” Paul questioned. We both flew in the air. I felt my teeth grind together when we landed.
“The internet. We’re meeting Alejandro and Carmen at their house in Los Achote.” I fluffed my skirt up to get some air. The 100% humidity was making it difficult to breathe.
“Did you check with a company to make sure it was legit?” Paul asked.
“Of course,” I said offended. “They’re recommended on a local site.” I folded the papers and tossed them in my bag.
“Okay, I’ve got Roberto on speed dial.”
“Ha,” was my response. Roberto was our taxi driver turned best buddy.
Paul and I stood alone on the side of the highway where we had been ejected by the wheezing, laboring bus. Los Achote was deserted. A few chickens clucked in the bushes and a faded Coca Cola sign stood in front of a building. It looked like any other small Mexican village. The roads were dusty and rutted. The houses were small and built creatively out of all types of building materials including wooden beams, concrete blocks, and rusted metal panels. The houses meandered along the street, some hidden in tall weeds others in plain view hugging the road.
“Welcome, I am Alejandro,” a small man appeared from a path through some weeds. Paul and I stopped. We squeezed hands.
“Hello,” I said picking my way through the underbrush. Paul shook hands with Alejandro. “Come,” he said. “Follow me.” We trailed along behind him parting the grass in front of us.
“Do you want to leave?” Paul murmured over his shoulder.
“I paid ninety bucks,” I said under my breath.
“It better be good.”
“It’s an adventure,” I replied.
I asked Paul once if it would have been better if he had married a calm, more steady woman. He actually stopped to think about it.
“No,” he confessed. “It would have been boring. Maybe it would be nice not to have so many surprises though.”
He got the silent treatment for the rest of the day. Adventures and surprises are a hair breath apart; he knows that. It is all in how you see it.
We approached Alejandro and Carmen’s house. It didn’t fit with the rest of the neighborhood. Even though it stood tightly closed with locked gates and iron bars on the windows, two sparkling clean cars were parked in the driveway. Even the hubcaps were painfully scrubbed.
Paul and I ducked our heads under the front doorway and entered the dim front room. Fans circled slowly overhead. The blinds were drawn and the wood floor shone with furniture polish.
It looked like an Ashley Furniture store ad. Expensive leather couches anchored the room and a large flat screen TV hung on the wall. Fake flowers were plunged in vases and TV trays stood at attention in the corner. Doilies, hundreds of doilies, covered every surface of the room.
“Welcome,” Carmen said coming into view. “Please come in.” She was a head taller than her husband. Her chin was lifted in the air and she wore reading glasses on the end of her nose. I could barely detect her Spanish accent. Alejandro’s was pronounced.
I tried peering around her to see into the rest of the house, but Paul grabbed my dress and pulled me back. I could see the set of his jawline. Adventure or surprise—he didn’t care at the moment. He just wanted me to behave.
Carmen waved her arm towards her spotless kitchen. “Please come and wash your hands.” She started to lead us to the kitchen and I scurried past her to the hall bathroom I could see from the front room. “Please this way,” Carmen fretted, but I was already beyond her and pushing open the door.
“Paul, Honey, you need to wash your hands,” I called. He came in the bathroom and eased the door shut.
“Do not do this,” he fumed splashing water and soaping his hands.
“Act like a detective,” he said. “This is not the time. This is their home.” He pulled a towel sharply off the rack.
Next to us the shower curtain fluttered. We heard a long, deep sigh.
“Paul’s someone’s in the shower.” I reached for the light fabric curtain. My hand hesitated and stopped.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said staring at the curtain. “I shouldn’t look.” A high window filtered light down into the tub and shower combo. There was the outline of a stool with narrow legs. A large mass sat on the stool. It hunched over like an old woman.
“Paul, someone is in there!” I let out a tiny whimper. The form shifted. We heard clicking like the sound of knitting needles touching delicately together. Click, click, pause, click, click. It stopped.
“Hola,” a voice intoned barely above a whisper.
“Hola,” I echoed my nose almost touching the curtain.
I wrapped my fingers around Paul’s arm and dug my fingernails into his skin.
“Ouch,” Paul glared. I put my finger to my lips.
“Please come out now,” Carmen called. “It is time for the lesson.”
As we left the bathroom, a rustling sound fluttered the shower curtain again. It sound just like a woman shaking her dress.
“We are making Chicharron Albest. It is my secret recipe made of pork and special ingredients.” Carmen clasped a large cutting board to her breast and then carefully set it down on the immaculate white countertop. Alejandro had draped himself over a chair at one end of the table. Paul and I sat glued together with stiff backs at the other end of the table. An entire soccer team could have sat in between us. The glass tabletop was spotless, devoid of any dirt or finger prints.
I had made a decision. Carmen was hiding her elderly mother in the shower for fear the woman’s ancient cackling would drive us away. It was likely influenced by my love of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s novel, but I stood by my supposition. ‘The abuela probably has to eat in the shower too,’ I surmised, my face a mask as I watched Carmen carefully choose her cooking utensils like a surgeon selecting operating instruments.
I was convinced she was forced to sit in the shower and knit doilies while the cooking lesson took place. In Hispanic culture grandmothers are revered by their families and sheltered in loving homes. I had decided that Carmen was the exception.
“Who will go first?” Carmen entreated. “You,” she said smiling and crooking her finger at me. “What is your name?”
“Lesley,” I gulped.
“You will chop garlic. You have done that, yes?” I thought about revealing that we had pint-sized jars of minced garlic in the U.S. but decided it wasn’t wise.
“Even size,” she instructed as I clumsily clomped the butcher knife. “Smaller.” I took a deep breath.
“I’m left-handed. It makes everything harder,” I looked up at her bravely. “Especially chopping.”
“Let me have it.” Carmen diced the garlic into unrecognizable small bits.
“You?” She gestured to my husband.
He cleared his throat. “Paul.”
“You will do the onion.” Paul stood at the cutting board waiting for his turn.
“Do you have a lot of cooking lessons with tourists?”
“Yes,” Carmen stated flatly.
“Yes,” Alejandro repeated.
Paul began chopping the onion with careful strokes.
“More quickly,” she ordered. “It will be even if you go quickly.” Paul chopped and chopped. The raw onion smell filled the room and tears mixed with the sweat rolling down the side of his face.
“So, Carmen, does your mother live with you?” I probed.
Carmen smashed a garlic glove with the heel of her hand and the side of the butcher knife. Paul kept his head down frantically chopping the remains of the white onion.
“My mother is a drunk,” Carmen said without emotion.
“Her mother is a drunk,” Alejandro repeated.
“We lived in Mexico City and my brother tricked her. He had her sign a paper saying she would buy a house in Los Achotes.” Carmen turned on the gas, and a flame erupted into the air.
“She didn’t have any money,” Carmen dismissed, flinging the minced garlic and the shredded onions into the pan.
“She didn’t have any money,” Alejandro murmured.
“But she signed the paper and my brother made us honor her debt.” Carmen’s biceps bulged as she swirled the onions and garlic in the pan.
“The debt,” Alejandro said laying his head on the table.
The sound of a delighted giggle came from the bathroom. Alejandro strode through the living room and shut the bathroom door. Carmen turned and faced us with a giant cleaver held over her head.
“Now we cut the meat. Come,” she ordered. “You will start first.”
I struggled to my feet. I was shaking. She held the cleaver out to me.
“You hold it like this.” She wrapped my fingers handle and shook it firmly. “Now, chop. Rapido!”
The meat was tough and dried. Stained a deep brownish-red, it was like trying to chop beef jerky. There was a large lump that defeated even the cleaver.
“That is not a bone. This meat is already cooked. Here, taste,” she picked up a piece of the meat and held it to my lips.
“Paul, come chop. I have to go to the bathroom.” As I fled the kitchen, the meat, onions, and garlic sizzled in the silence. Even the dust motes in the dim air were waiting.
I shut the door behind me and turned on the faucet to drown out my voice.
“Hello,” I stammered.
“Hello,” the bobbing and weaving shadow behind the shower curtain replied.
“Are you there?” I consoled.
“Are you there?”
I stood, my heart pounding out of my chest, and willed myself to pull back the curtain. The hunched form seemed to shake its head back and forth.
“Can I do anything? Are you okay?” I pleaded.
“Okay,” it breathed. I flushed the toilet.
“Adios,” I whispered.
Carmen set a doilie in front of each of us and placed our plates on them. She put the bowls of meat and a container of frothy green liquid in front of us. She went to the oven and pulled out a basket of tortillas. Tears dripped from the corners of my eyes as I ate.
“What is wrong? Is it the meat?” she growled.
“No, Carmen. It is the onions,” I said. “Paul chopped them too uneven.”
We ate everything, shoveling it into our mouths as fast as we could. It was delicious and if I could have smuggled the frothy green stuff home I would have gladly. Carmen and Alejandro sat at the far end of the table with stony faces. They could hardly wait until we were gone.
“So, Roberto,” Paul said pulling his door shut. “Is there any way a Mexican couple would keep their abuela in the bath tub while they were teaching a cooking class?”
“Paul?” He turned abruptly around in his seat to stare at my husband. “No, I don’t think so. But, they might keep a parrot in there. To keep it quiet so it wouldn’t interrupt.”
“Ha,” Paul crowed. “It was a parrot, of course. Lesley thought it was an abuela.”
“Well, Lesley could be right,” Roberto acknowledged. “We don’t want our loco abuelas getting out and hurting themselves. Perhaps it could have been an abuela.” He smiled at me in the rear view mirror. Roberto is such a good guy. He gets me.
Then I remembered. Paul said there was a difference between adventures and surprises, did he not?
“Okay, how many parrots do you know are fluent in English and Spanish?”
That shut them up.
“Okay, let’s work through this and come to a reasonable and logical conclusion.” Paul and I were swinging in hammocks tucked under a thatched roof of a beach side restaurant. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? I was ready to come out swinging to defend my abuela theory.
“Let’s look at the evidence,” Paul said passing me a margarita. “Go, Nancy Drew.”
“Someone crocheted all of those doilies,” I started strong.
“Carmen in her spare time,” Paul pushed off with his big toe.
“No way. She is constantly cleaning and cooking.”
“I am not dignifying that with answer,” I retorted. “Point to me. Next piece of evidence. What was the figure behind the shower curtain?”
“Parrot in a cage.”
“Woman on a stool. No points. We didn’t look behind the curtain.” We sipped our drinks.
“Clicking knitting needles? I offered.
“Bored parrot pacing his bar and clicking his ugly toes,” Paul smacked in satisfaction. “Point.”
“Rustling of clothes?” I continued.
“Beating of wings.” Paul sounded bored. “Point.”
“No. You’ve never worn a skirt that you can rustle on a hot day. Point.”
“The deep and heartfelt sigh.” I waited.
“Old, sad parrot.” I swung for him and missed.
“Hey, careful. You don’t want to spill that. You’d have to get up and get another one.”
“What about the fact that she could speak both Spanish and English? How more human can you get?” I countered.
“Bilingual parrot,” Paul said his eyes closed. I socked him hard. “Ouch. Why’d you do that?”
“Because,” I stopped. I didn’t know why.
“We’re on vacation and we had fun today, didn’t we? I thought it was great.” He came over to sit in my hammock. “You did a great job finding that class.”
“Get out of my hammock. There is no way this will hold the both of us.” But it did. We swung gently in the (thankfully) oversized hammock and sipped our frozen and salty drinks until our foreheads ached.
“I have one more piece of evidence,” I said sitting on the edge of the hammock. “What about that crazy giggle when Carmen said her mother was a drunk?”
“Comedian parrot?” Paul asked.
I stood up. The hammock flew aloft and dumped Paul onto the sand.
“Hey,” he said surprised. I walked away without looking back. I wiggled two fingers to the bartender. Time for another margarita before our next adventure.