As I enter middle age—I turn seventy in two years—I think more and more about relationships of short duration. Most of the people I know well in both Colorado and Mexico have had “one night stands,” so popular in the seventies, relationships that spontaneously take root, grow, burst into full blossom, and then, after only a few hours, wither away to apparently nothing. Nevertheless there is pleasure, and perhaps even meaning, in them.
Decades ago I was in Mexico during spring break, on Playa de los Muertos in Puerto Vallarta. The beach was covered with so many college-age bikini-clad bodies that one struggled to find a strip of sand a foot wide on which to spread a towel. But, what better way to get close to people. I, no fool, slipped in next to two browning bodies with lovely voices. As we all sipped margaritas, we were soon talking about Russian literature, about Mexico, and about student life at Bryn Mawr. José Cuervo visited us often that hot afternoon; and I volunteered the bottle of Coppertone Dark Tanning Oil I carried with me for such occasions, and of course I told them about the classes I had taken at the Boulder School of Massage in Colorado.
The extroverted and sexy brunette was named Sallie, and the prim blond with blue eyes was named Harriet. As both the tequila and the careful application of tanning oil began to work, the talk changed from Tolstoy to sex. They revealed to me their “deal” of the previous night—whoever was first to pick up a boy in Happy Jacks, take him back to their adjacent hotel, make love, and return to Happy Jacks—all within 30 minutes—would receive as her prize, the following day, unlimited margaritas on the beach. It was not Sallie who won, but Harriet, the apparently shy one. Sallie announced that Harriet had done it all in twenty-four minutes, beginning to end. I asked who the boy was. Harriet said she had no idea, but she remembered he tried to convince her he went to Yale, although she doubted it because when she asked, “How do you like Boston?” he told her he loved it, particularly the breaded-tenderloin sandwiches.
Harriet’s relationship was passionate, intense; it lasted all of twenty-four minutes: two bodies meeting, coming together, parting. But there are even shorter relationships that have a magic around them, and it may be something as simple as a short conversation with a stranger. Indeed if we can say, “This, Here and Now, is wonderful,” and not wish ourselves out of the moment into “If only,” then something has happened, something that is human, and lovely, and sufficient unto itself.
One morning in Puerto Vallarta I was waiting for a bus. A young Mexican woman, in low-cut jeans and a white blouse tied sweetly below her breasts, sat down beside me. She began talking to me in her newly-learned university English. I told her I was a writer, a poet. We talked about love, about the poems of Pablo Neruda, and then, less than ten minutes later, her bus, not mine, arrived. She stood up and turned to me and offered her hand. I stood up. She kissed me on the cheek. I kissed her on the cheek. Still holding her hand, I helped her step up onto the bus. She again turned toward me. I saw in her navel—now almost at lip level—a beautiful black pearl mounted in gold. She gave me a smile which I later mounted in gold, and still carry with me.
One of those rooms in my heart is now her room. I have mounted her name on the door: Naomi. I have decorated her room with Zapotec rugs, huge heart-shaped pillows, ancient tables heavily carved with angels, a bowl filled with black pearls, like caviar for the eyes, pitchers filled with roses that never wither, and, bound in red leather and stamped in gold, the Collected Poems of Pablo Neruda; of course there is a bed, although the details of some things, to remain sacred, must be kept private.
I knew Naomi for ten minutes. Others I have known for only one minute, or ten seconds, or two seconds. But I did know them. I hope to see you one day soon walking through the streets of Ajijic or Chapala (or maybe on the beach at Puerto Vallarta).