Embracing the Night by Andrew Hughes
Embracing the Night by Andrew Hughes
Bill Schultz stepped out of the drizzling rain into the bar, Euphoria. It was a busy night. There were half a dozen people sitting at the bar and twice as many spread out at the picnic tables, mostly tourists but plenty of Guatemalan brown dispersed amongst the white. On the dance floor, speakers spat bass drops and electronic riffs. A crowd had gathered at the edge of the room to cheer on a couple gyrating wildly at the epicenter, a tank top wearing local with a cheerleader blonde wrapped around his hips. Hands stuffed in the pockets of his cargo shorts, blue raincoat hanging off his narrow shoulders, Bill made his way to the bar.
The bartender, a homely faced, tight bodied blonde with tangles of hanging dreadlocks, moved about, filling glasses and joking with her clientele. Bill stood at the corner nearest the stairs where outside, rain cascaded off bamboo gutters. He glanced back over his shoulder, feeling the need to retreat, to flee back to his hostel and fire up his old laptop. It was still early enough to get in a good six hours of Star Fire before the pained light of dawn peaked through the rickety shutters. At the door, a burly security guard with a thin mustache and caramelized skin was trying to draw women in off the street with the promise of the first round on him. Bill gulped.
“What will you be having honey?”
Bill turned around. The bartender was standing before him sporting a bemused smile.
“Get a little lost there?” she asked, her voice all Australian accent.
“Oh, uh, yeah.”
“Well that’s all right, you’re here now. What will you be having?”
“Well, um, how about a,” he studied the menu on the back wall even though he always got the same thing. “Gin and tonic?”
“Gin and tonic. You got it.”
As she turned, he felt the overarching longing to shout to her, to beg her only to use a glass that had been cleaned with sterile, bottled water. He didn’t need microscopic parasites swimming in there, the kind that turned your insides out and your outsides to molded jelly. But, she had turned around already and it was too late. With the DJ roaring, she probably wouldn’t have heard him anyways.
Bill looked at the tip jar on the counter. It read, Please tip well, we’re saving for a helicopter.
She returned a minute later and placed the bubbling glass before him. A lime stuck off the rim like a feather atop a hat.
“That’ll be six-fifty love.”
“Okay,” Bill said, pushing eight quetzals across the bar.
The bartender moved to the cash register and Bill picked up his drink, turning around to survey his surroundings, hoping for a familiar face. No such luck. Even more people had flooded in, probably to escape the escalating downpour. He started to walk across the room towards the one empty picnic table at the back of the patio, passing through a cloud of conversation, Spanish, English, Mayan. Bill studied the groups out of his peripheral as he moved towards the far table, the one a mere foot away from the torrents of hot rain. That presented a problem, one that made him stop right as he went to set his drink down. Usually, he would sit on the far side of the table, making it easier to study those around him, but tonight that seat was drenched. Frozen by hesitation, Bill looked over his shoulder at the tables full of young, jovial people. His peers. They talked and laughed, the girls uproarious over the guys jokes, the guys flashing high five me later grins to their mates. As he scanned the room, he caught one girl’s eyes, a petite brunette, and he quickly glanced away. More laughter sounded from their table. Screw it, he thought, and sat down on the dry side of the table.
At least this way, he would have a good view of the lake, he thought, that wide expanse of violet water enclosed by great, rocky banks. The massive pool that brought together all the surrounding towns, babies suckling at the mother’s teat. Behind him, a glass broke, and Bill’s heart skipped a tick. He glanced back and saw the bartender laughing and the bar goers all lifting their drinks high before tossing them back.
“Idiots,” Bill muttered and turned back to his drink. He took two long swallows and squinted out across the water. He couldn’t see through such a heavy rain, but most days, the lights of the surrounding cities were faintly visible on the backdrop of the mountains, stars in a deep, purple night. Two more swallows and he thought about his laptop, how it was stashed inside his pillowcase. Worry pricked at him, fear that it would be stolen or that one of his unwanted roommates might get too drunk and fall onto the wrong bed, shattering the screen with his head. No, Bill thought, draining the rest of his drink. No, he had come out tonight to meet people, and hell, he was going to try. But first, he would have to use the restroom. With a shuffle, he stepped over the bench seat, and made his way towards the dance floor.
The bar was filling up now, another two dozen people had slipped down the stairs and stood congregated at the edge of the dance floor, piled up so thick they blocked the hall to the urinal like an arterial clot.
“Excuse me,” Bill said. “Can I get through please?”
The amorphous bulge of human degenerates did not move, and internally, Bill longed to leave, but not before he tried to talk to someone, and certainly not before he at least made it to the bathroom. Finally, his skin crawling, Bill stepped forward into the masse and half pushed, half crawled, and part swam his way through to the other side, stumbling headlong into the security guard.
“Watch where you’re going little man,” said the guard, his voice as deep as a steamboat’s horn.
“I’m sorry,” Bill croaked, as he rushed into the bathroom, took his place at the far end of the trough, and let out a satisfying stream.
Down the urinal, the tank top wearing local who’d been the center of the dance floor’s attention stood peeing, manhood in one hand, hoisted beer in the other.
“You want something bro?” he asked with a smirk.
“No, uh, no.”
Bill looked away, back towards the inclined metal basin before him. He was done urinating already, but felt the urge to remain motionless.
The local laughed, tossed his beer can into the trough, and stumbled away.
Bill sighed, and zipped his pants.
There was no sink, no bar of soap, no hand sanitizing station. That was all right, he’d rather have his hands dirty from his own manhood than from the water pulled from the lake. As he walked back from the trough, he once more pressed through the throbbing bundle of limbs and torsos, emerging from the other side feeling molested. On his way back to the table, he stopped by the bar and waited a long moment until the bartender worked her way down to him. He ordered another gin and tonic and paid when it arrived.
There were more people at the tables now, but his spot at the far, lonely end of the room was still open, and he was thankful for that as he stepped down the dirty hardwood and over the stray dog that a tourist couple was feeding french fries. He disregarded the local noises and avoided eye contact, focusing instead on his seat, that empty plank of wood, and watched with dismay as he came to the second to last row, the native from the bathroom lead a female tourist to his spot.
“Hey, excuse me,” Bill said, emboldened by the liquor.
The couple glanced up.
“You’ve taken my seat. I was sitting here.”
The native offered the slightest shrug of his shoulders.
“Well can you move?”
Nothing. The local resumed emphatically explaining a native delight with both of his hands reaching out and grazing the tourist girl’s arms to signify water rolling down. They were locked in deep, lustful eye contact.
Bill set his drink down hard, causing a bit to splash up on the already rain splattered table.
“Man, fuck off,” said the native. He outstretched his hands. “A million other seats bro.”
“But this one was mine.”
People from other tables were watching them now.
“Listen,” said the native, rain trickling down on his tank top adorned shoulders. “If you don’t walk away, we’re going to have a problem.”
Bill seethed with anger, his lips pressed firmly together. He often got drunk at bars back home, but it was always the local bar down the street from their old apartment. It had ski ball tables and arcade games, smoking was prohibited, and he knew the owner well. They played Magic together on Wednesday nights. He ventured nowhere else, because that was home, so there, he did not have to deal with such an overt threat to his stature, no risk of conversational or physical domination. He stood there, and without even knowing it, his fingers curled to fists.
“Don’t make me do this buddy. Not in front of this beautiful woman.”
It was too late, he wanted his seat back. He’d never been in a fight before.
The native scooted back the seat and stood to his full, broad chested height at such a startling speed, Bill stumbled backwards with fright. All around the barroom, there were chuckles. The local smirked at him, and sat back down to continue his explanation.
Silently, his lips quivering and threatening to drag him headfirst into a fit of tears, Bill turned for the door. He needed to go, needed to be home, wanted out.
“Hey, take your drink bro,” yelled the local.
Bill did not turn around, not until the plastic cup smacked into his shoulder, splattering the back of his rain jacket in pungent, bitter liquor. He fled the bar, his flip flops threatening to trip him on the wide steps.
As he emerged, the pouring rain masked the tears welling up at the corners of his eyes. He cursed himself, he cursed the bar and the local, he cursed the whole country and most of all, he cursed Julia who had tore him apart so much he felt he needed to run away down here. He spat out all these obscenities in one long, drawn out tirade, and when he stopped he was out of breath, standing in the pouring rain, a few feet outside of Euphoria.
“Excuse me,” said a soft voice from behind him.
“What?” He spun around, expecting to see one of the elderly woman selling popcorn or even worse those brown eyed children trying to sling chiclets for a dollar fifty a package. But, it wasn’t. Before him stood a short woman with straight black hair and skin like toffee. She smiled at him, revealing deep dimples.
“Uh hi, sorry,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“You were in the bar,” she said, looking down at her feet.
He followed her gaze and then looked back up. “Yeah, I was. I’m sorry.”
“Why do you say you’re sorry?”
This struck him for a moment and he contemplated it in silence. He sure felt apologetic, that wave of exhaustion and remorse that flushed from his temples, but he couldn’t quite place why. In fact, it seemed silly, now that he thought about it.
“I don’t know.”
She made a mocking pouty face. “No reason to say you’re sorry unless you mean it.”
“I guess you’re right. What’s your name?”
Bill outstretched his hand and she took it with her fingertips, the nails painted a vibrant orange. He shook her hand delicately, held on for a moment, and then let go, sliding his hands back into his pocket. This felt a goofy gesture. Hadn’t he just read that hands in the pockets was a sign of reservation? But he felt no qualms, not now, and instead he removed them and let them fall limp by his side.
“I’m Bill,” he said.
“Very nice to meet you Bill.”
Jesus, her eyes were like chocolate.
“Would you like to come back in with me? That was Raul, he’s always a,” she paused. “A real burro.”
“Whats a burro?”
“A jackass you say.”
Bill laughed. “Okay, yeah, I could see that.”
“Come back in with me, we can get another drink, and not be wet. We don’t have to talk even, we can just dance.”
He didn’t know how to dance.
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
Sofia smiled and took his hand. “C’mon then.”
He let her pull him down the steps, past the bouncer and right up to the bar where the Australian stood at attention as if she’d expected them to come bounding in at that exact instance.
“Well hello there, you’re back. Gin and tonic?”
Bill looked to Sofia, and Sofia shook her head laughing. “No, dos duble Cuba libres.”
The bartender nodded and reached for the bottle of rum.
“Cuba libre?” Bill asked.
“Trust me. You look like you need to loosen up.”
From the dance floor, the techno music was deafening, but to Bill the crowd seemed to have opened up some. The bartender set the two drinks on the bar.
“How much are they?” Bill asked.
“Don’t worry, they’re on the house. Reimbursement for the one that got spilt.”
“You got it mate.” And then she was gone again, back down the bar to service the other bold, yet lonely souls.
Bill picked up one of the tall glasses and studied the dark, fizzing liquid. There seemed to be a spiraling trail of amber at its epicenter.
“Don’t sip it,” Sofia said, picking up the other. “Toss it back all at once.”
“One, two, three,” and the tall glass was pressed to her lips, raised high into the air.
She’s insane, Bill thought, but followed suit, lifting the drink and letting the liquid pour down his throat. He felt the burn but it passed quick, and when he slammed the glass down next to hers, he could already feel the warm wave of drunk flush his face like heatstroke.
“Told you.” She stuck out her tongue. “C’mon, take me dancing.”
She grabbed his hand and they were off again, pressing through the bubble until they were caught in the center, and before him, she danced, grinding her hips against people as she passed, pulling him closer, whispering for him to relax in a voice that he could somehow hear over the sound of the music, a frequency only he was attuned to. He felt his joints loosening, coming free from his stiff demeanor like chains breaking out of ice in the heart of winter, and soon he was gyrating like the rest, rubbing against her, and they were close, so close, red strobes passing above, and they were kissing, tongues snaking together in the space between their mouths, a push and a pull, and the pressure from the masses dissipated, and free-fall assumed, two solitary flickers, and then it was broken as Sofia pulled back.
The dance floor was being cleared by the DJ, and a pair of shirtless natives appeared with two long sticks. They herded the masses into a circle with their batons. The dancers lit their sticks and flung them up into the air, flaming twirls, delicate and powerful motions. Quick passing waves of heat struck Bill as the crowd howled and Sofia cheered. Bill’s hands hung by his side, and Sofia grabbed hold of one, squeezing it tight. He glanced at her and she was pulling him again, straight to the bar where she ordered two more.
“What, is everything okay?”
The drinks appeared before them, and Sofia grabbed hers and tossed it back. Bill followed suit, draining it in the traditional single gulp.
“Where are you staying?”
“The San Ignacio.”
She took him by the hand, and they were in the street again, flagging down a Tok-Tok. On the rickety ride back to his hostel, she traced mayan patterns on his knee. Bill tipped the driver at his front step, and inside, his room was empty.
“What if they get back?” he asked.
“I don’t care,” she said, dragging him onto the mattress.
Afterward, they lay on the ratty sheets with her head against his thin chest, her small breasts and tiny brown nipples splayed on his side, bare bottom, tight and dark on full display. She kissed his chest and played with the strands of hair.
“How was I?” he asked.
“It was good, very good.”
“Good,” he sighed, all his energy drained from him, a human puddle upon the mattress.
“So why are you in San Pedro?”
“I was going to get married, but she left. It seemed time for a journey.”
“I am sorry,” she said after a moment, kissing him again. “You deserve to be treated not like that.”
“What did you say about being sorry?”
“To only say it when I mean it.”
“And you mean it?”
They were silent a while.
“Have you ever been outside San Pedro?” he asked.
“No, but I want to. I want to go to California and rub my face on the sand, and to see the snows up in Canada. To feel all.”
“You know it snows in California too?”
“No, it does. It gets very cold in the mountains.”
“I didn’t know that.”
They lay in silence for a long while, and Bill held her close. He was nearly on the verge of dozing off when she stirred and sat up.
“What? Everything okay?”
“Yes, but I have to go now. I must be home tonight.”
“Okay. But I’ll see you again, yes?”
“If you want, then yes.”
“Of course I want to.”
“Then you will.”
They both got dressed and walked out of the hostel on legs that felt like jelly. There were no Tok-Toks to be found, so they started the long walk back to the native side of town. They held hands and pointed at the sky, blissfully lost.
From behind them, a bottle smashed.
Fifty yards down the street, Raul and a few other locals were walking towards them, waving and hollering.
“Let’s keep going,” said Sofia, tugging Bill by the hand.
“Aye Sofia!” Raul yelled, and another bottle sailed through the air and smashed against the cobblestone to their left. When they looked back, the boys were running towards them. Sofia squeezed his hand tighter.
“I see you’ve had a busy night,” Raul said, coming to a stop a few feet away, blowing a kiss at her. The others snickered.
Bill said nothing, feeling cold fear grip him for the second time in that short, blissfully drunken period. Jesus, they were circling like vultures.
“Vete Raul, vete.”
“Ninguna chica, dame un beso.”
The boys howled. Bill cursed himself for not knowing Spanish, for not paying attention in class instead of playing those stupid phone games under the table.
“Ohhh,” Raul said, smiling. He took a step closer to her, and then glanced at Bill.
“Fuiste un hombre bajito?”
“Vete Raul, demonio!” She looked as if she was going to cry.
“You heard her,” Raul said, looking at Bill. “Go home, she wants to come with me.”
That was enough. The fear was turning to rage in his chest, whether it be anger, the drinks, or the pitiful look on her face.
“Fuck you,” he said, and swung.
The blow connected with Raul’s face, and he stumbled back a step and rubbed his chin.
Regret overcame Bill, and Sofia reached for him, placing both hands on his chest, but then they were gone as she was dragged back and Raul clobbered him twice on the nose, knocking him to the ground. Hot blood dripped down his face. Bill struggled to place his hands on the pavement, to push himself back up, to fight, to protect her, to be strong like he’d never been able to be before. Another blow landed on the top of his skull, this time from a boot, and in the distance he could hear Sofia scream. No. He pressed himself up, into a kneeling position, and Raul thrust into his chest. Then, a ripping sound, like tearing paper.
Bill lay still on the ground as he heard footsteps bound away through the night. Wet, why was he wet? The rain. That must be it. But no, it felt like it was coming from inside of him, like his chest was spilling out onto the pavement. What the hell?
From where he lay, he could see Sofia standing above him, crying, her hands covering her face. They were red. Why were they red? Then she blurred, becoming a petite incomprehensible shape.
Copyright Andrew Hughes 2021